The Bush Administration's Latest Iraq Dodge

Iyad Allawi picked a bad time to make a public plea for the United States to re-anoint him Iraq's prime minister. On Saturday, The Washington Post published an unusual op-ed by Allawi, whom the U.S. tapped in 2004 to be the first post-Coalition Provisional Authority premier, as which he proclaimed that without "change at the top of the Iraqi government" any U.S. withdrawal would end in disaster.

He didn't need to elaborate on who needs to rule Iraq in place of current Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki -- that's clear enough from the byline. But Allawi wrote that with sufficient vigor from Baghdad toward national reconciliation and increased security,the next prime minister can guide most U.S. forces out of Iraq in two years. Saatchi & Saatchi couldn't have crafted a better sales pitch for an American government weary of Maliki, who's proven to be even more sectarian and incompetent than his predecessor, Ibrahim al Jaafari.

Too bad for Allawi, then, that the Bush administration has a different palliative in mind for Iraq's collapsed (and U.S.-designed) political scene. Or at least that's what it wants you to believe. In response to the inability of the national government to resolve Iraq's multifaceted sectarian wars, over the last several months, administration mouthpieces have changed the subject. Baghdad politics is outré. The new fashion is what's called "bottom-up reconciliation" -- that is, political advances in Iraq's 18 provinces meant to reveal a new spirit of Iraqi brotherhood. Expect to hear a lot about bottom-up reconciliation in next month's congressional testimony from General David Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. And expect it to be as disingenuous as every other portrayal of political progress in Iraq.

Crocker heralded the new strategy in videoconference testimony he gave to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month. Highlighting the recent split between al-Qaeda in Iraq and Sunni insurgents and civilians in Anbar and Diyala provinces, Crocker cheered that former U.S. enemies were now "supporting Coalition forces, and, by extension, the Iraqi government."

Weeks later on Meet the Press, Defense Secretary Bob Gates jumped to a similar conclusion. "We, perhaps, all underestimated the depth of the misunderstanding and mistrust among these sections, among these factions in Baghdad over time," he said. "But I think what we have been unprepared for is the, is the turn in places like al-Anbar and some other places where the locals have, at the local level, have flipped and come over to our side."

Not to be outdone, President Bush heralded the efforts of province-based diplomatic and military teams to "encourage reconciliation from the ground up" in his radio address this weekend. "Americans can be encouraged by the progress and reconciliation that are taking place at the local level," he pronounced. "And as reconciliation occurs in local communities across Iraq, it will help create the conditions for reconciliation in Baghdad as well."

As the Iraqis say, the fish rots from the head. In their comments, Crocker and Gates at least acknowledged that they were talking primarily about security improvements in the provinces, as much as they conflated security and reconciliation. Bush, true to form, showed no such reluctance toward blatant misrepresentation. Now that it's come out that Crocker’s and Petraeus' report will be largely written by the White House, expect a lot of misleading statements implying that positive security developments in the provinces show that scar tissue is developing over Iraq's sectarian fissures.

Sure enough, the opposite is true. First, and most obviously, the provinces in which the Sunni--al-Qaeda split has manifested are overwhelmingly Sunni, making sectarian reconciliation an orthogonal issue. More substantively, the best news in years out of Iraq is that al-Qaeda in Iraq is even more incompetent than we are: In barely two years of existence, it's managed to alienate a good number of Iraqi Sunnis, its only bastion of support, through its bloodthirsty and theocratic impulses. U.S. withdrawal may have many negative results, but an al-Qaeda mini-state in Iraq won't be one of them. Tribal leaders and insurgent groups, like the 1920 Revolution Brigades, have accepted U.S. sponsorship and collaboration in order to drive al-Qaeda in Iraq out of Anbar and Diyala provinces. What they've wanted in return is money and guns, and the U.S. has been understandably eager to oblige.

And that decision to turn against al-Qaeda in Iraq indeed has implications for sectarian reconciliation -- just not the kind the administration portrays. In an interview last month with The New York Times, Major General Rick Lynch, commander of the Third Infantry Division, explained the motivation of his new Sunni partners: "They say, 'We hate you because you are occupiers, but we hate Al Qaeda worse, and we hate the Persians even more.'" By "Persians," the anti--al-Qaeda fighters mean "Shiites," and particularly the Shiites that dominate Iraq's political structure.

Far from seeking the pacific intermingling of Iraq's feuding sects, the more likely explanation for the turn against al-Qaeda in Iraq is that the Sunni tribal leaders and insurgent groups see U.S. sponsorship as a lever to win against all enemies -- including outside al-Qaeda domination and internal Shiite political domination -- and, in the process, pave the way for a U.S. withdrawal that leaves them in a position of strength. Little wonder that a U.S. Army war game on withdrawal found that Iraqis are far more likely to turn their guns on each other than on retreating U.S. forces. Little wonder as well that a group of non-commissioned officers attached to the 82nd Airborne Division, writing in the Times on Sunday, expressed frustration with the current strategy of "trying to please every party in the conflict."

Those NCOs see Iraqi politics as the Iraqis do: as a zero-sum conflict. That attitude is as on full display in the provinces as it is in Baghdad, where Maliki's reshuffled government excluded both major Sunni parliamentary parties last week. It would be one thing if the Bush administration argued that Iraqi reconciliation isn't as important to U.S. interests as the attrition of al-Qaeda is -- which would have the virtue of being true. Instead, the administration sold the surge on the basis of fostering reconciliation, so publicly renouncing that goal isn't an option. Moving the battleground of reconciliation from the capital to the hinterlands represents a shifting of the goalposts, not a more promising germination of unity. Even Iyad Allawi knows that -- though saying it surely won't make him prime minister.