Waiting for Petraeus – The Games We Play

Right now Washington is gearing up for the appearance before Congress of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. They are to testify on September 11th on the progress (or lack thereof) in Iraq since President Bush implemented his "surge" plan to promote political stability and military security in Iraq. The content of their reports can largely be discerned from recent briefings and the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq released this week.

It all sounds straightforward, but it is not. There is gamesmanship at work.

The "surge," while having a questionable impact in Iraq has already shaken up politics here at home. No matter how the Administration spins the situation in post-"surge" Iraq, it remains bleak. The killing continues as U.S. and Iraqi casualties mount. At one point, the Bush Administration sought some advantage, pointing to lower July U.S. casualty totals as evidence of success. But that was immediately countered by the fact that in the past several years, July casualty figures for U.S. troops in Iraq have always been lower – and this year’s July casualty figures were actually higher than those of the past. And while Iraqi deaths are down in areas where there has been an increase in U.S. troop presence, as predicted, the violence moved to other parts of the country.

At the same time, too many Iraqis remain without power, water and basic security. More than four million Iraqis are either refugees or internally displaced, and the internal political dynamic of the country remains as volatile as ever.

Nevertheless, the introduction of an additional 30,000 troops in targeted areas and new tactics used in other areas (cooperating with some Sunni tribes against Al-Qa’ida elements) has had some impact. But progress here comes with the potential risk of further weakening the central government. In any case, the White House has been able to spin this limited progress to their advantage. While two-thirds of the American people still think that the war was a mistake and as many want the U.S. to withdraw, there is now an increase in the number of Americans who think the "surge" is "making the situation better in Iraq." This month’s polling numbers show 29% of Americans feel this way, as opposed to only 19% last month.

In playing their hand, the Administration holds two trump cards. For one, most Americans are loathe to criticize the military or to suggest that those who have made the ultimate sacrifice have done so in vain. The second is that as bad as the situation in Iraq may be, it is clear that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal will only make things worse.

Responsible Democrats have always understood this. Barack Obama, who alone among his party’s leading candidates for President stood in opposition to the war, has consistently cautioned that "we cannot leave as irresponsibly as we entered." But others in the party have gone too far out on a limb, calling for an immediate and total withdrawal – a position that is both irresponsible and unsustainable.

It is this view, with it inherent vulnerabilities, that the Administration has targeted, and with some effect. A few Democratic members of Congress who had opposed the war and the "surge" appear to have had a change of heart following recent trips to Iraq. Democratic Congressman Brian Baird of Washington noted, "People may be upset. I wish I didn’t have to say this. I know it’s going to cost hundreds of Americans lives and hundreds of billions of dollars." And he added, "One, I think we’re making real progress. Secondly, I think the consequences of pulling back precipitously would be potentially catastrophic for the Iraqi people themselves, to whom we have a responsibility … and in the long run chaotic for the region as a whole for our own security."

But while support for the U.S. military’s effort may be growing and a concern for the consequences of a withdrawal may buy the Administration some limited time to continue the "surge," trouble is brewing on another front.

With the military inoculated against criticism, Congressional and White House wrath appears to now be focused on Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, returned from Iraq last week calling for Maliki’s ouster. He was joined by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who said, "I share Senator Levin’s hope that the Iraqi Parliament will replace Prime Minister Maliki with a less divisive and more unifying figure when it returns in a few weeks."

Even the White House, in a sign of frustration, sent a deliberately mixed message to the Prime Minister. On August 21, Bush warned "The fundamental question is: Will the government respond to the demands of the people? … If the government doesn’t respond to the demands of the people, they will replace the government." The next day he almost balanced his assessment of al-Maliki by observing, "Prime Minister Maliki’s a good guy, a good man with a difficult job and I support him," but then quickly added that it wasn’t the job of U.S. politicians to change Iraq’s leaders (read: Senator Clinton) – that was the job of the Iraqi people (read: Al-Maliki).

Making the Iraqi Prime Minister the scapegoat may buy the Administration more time by diverting attention away from U.S. policy failures, but this is a risky business and somewhat unfair. Al-Maliki, though clearly a sectarian figure, has no independent power base, and no real armed force under his command. He sits astride a fractious government coalition of fiercely competitive factions, ideologues, and heavily armed militias – each seeking their own advantage. His recent forays into neighboring Iran and Syria were less of an expression of affinity for these neighbors than they were driven by his need to strengthen his weak domestic position.

Blaming the failure to achieve national reconciliation on al-Maliki may score some political points at home, but makes little sense. He is in no position to force the stronger Kurdish groups to surrender their decision to expand the area further south and secure their independence. Nor is he in a position to control the armed Shi’a factions who will give little ground to the once-powerful and now disenfranchised Sunni tribes.

In reality, the failures that Petraeus and Crocker will point to belong not to al-Maliki but squarely on the doorstep of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and its occupant. It is the failure of the Bush Administration to embrace the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group to pursue a comprehensive diplomatic initiative that has contributed to the disfunctionalities at work in Iraq today.

Thirty thousand troops cannot hold Iraq together or end its civil war. Nor can one-on-one U.S. meetings with Iran or Syria, or limited U.S. cooperation with Saudi Arabia, bring about national reconciliation in Iraq.

Creating a regional security framework involving all of Iraq’s neighbors and ceding political and eventual military control to the United Nations is way forward to national dialogue, and a way out of the current quagmire.

This will not be discussed on September 11. Instead, there will be gamesmanship, with moves countering other moves, buying time for a failed policy in a war that will only continue.