Fickle Attraction

It is now, finally, widely understood that any long-term improvement in Iraq will have to come about through political compromises and solutions. Only the most fringe reactionaries still argue that we can prevail in Iraq by killing or capturing all of our "enemies." Political settlements, whether in the form of a grand bargain or compartmentalized work on issues such as revenue sharing, federalism, de-Baathification, and militias, are the only hope for halting the cycle of violence. This is ostensibly the goal of the Bush administration's "surge" policy in Baghdad: a temporary escalation of troops to bring about a moment of relative peace, which would create an opportunity for consequential progress on the political front.

Moreover, despite our overstretched military and legacy of blunders, the United States still has significant influence in Iraq's internal politics -- not quite as much as the Bush administration believes, but perhaps more than we deserve. Thus the United States continues to exert pressure, often using that influence to try to find what it believes is the key to success: an Iraqi leader who can somehow simultaneously crush and compromise with the various militant factions in the country.

In its efforts to steer Iraq's political process, however, the Bush administration has continually appeared unable to decide whom to support. Indeed, the last four years have offered a wretched history of folly: U.S. officials, abetted by hyperventilating domestic war supporters, repeatedly anoint Iraqi leaders as saviors only to subsequently blame those same leaders for the continuing disaster. Ever-shifting diplomatic signals have significantly harmed the development of Iraq's political process while irrevocably undermining the administration's own credibility in touting, and supporting, the latest "capable" Iraqi leadership.

If we cannot figure out who we are backing -- and there is no indication we have or will -- ad hoc meddling will continue to damage Iraq rather than move the country forward. The fact that the current troop escalation is intended to provide a window for political engagement makes the ongoing failures of U.S. policy especially egregious. (Even in current assessments of the surge, the focus remains, wrongly, on numbers of attacks and casualties rather than on the strategic goal of forging effective political and diplomatic efforts.)

The administration's current failure to choose (and stick to) a strategy is nothing new. It's worth briefly recounting the main elements of the administration's four-year history of variable strategic goals and anointed "good guys" in Iraq. The story isn't pretty, but it is instructive.


In the march to war, many leading neoconservatives envisioned a kind of benevolent despotism led by Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi exile group Iraqi National Congress (INC), which receieved millions of dollars from the United States before and after the invasion. Despite having perhaps the least indigenous political support of any opposition group, Chalabi and the INC had the inside track to lead what neoconservatives believed would be a secular, pro-West, free-market Iraqi political system, a boon for democracy and business interests alike.

Following the invasion, however, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the leading Iraqi Shia cleric, insisted on elections, foiling the plan to install a U.S.-picked government. The United States established an interim system, lasting from July 2003 to June 2004, which rotated leadership and reported to the grossly inept Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). In June 2004, the Iraqi Interim Government (IIG), which technically replaced the CPA, took over in a transfer of sovereignty touted by the American press.

The IIG was headed by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, another Iraqi exile group leader and past recipient of U.S. funding and support. Like Chalabi, Allawi is a secular capitalist, and he had a reputation for toughness but little popular support. He was hand-picked by Bush administration officials who saw him as the great "centrist" hope despite this lack of any broad Iraqi constituency.

At this point, midway through 2004, it was increasingly clear that Iraq was not moving smoothly into liberalism. The insurgency was growing, as were sectarian tensions, and the United States wanted an Iraqi leader who would crush insurgents while simultaneously uniting the nation (in part by reaching out to alienated Sunnis, to repair the damage wrought by such disastrous CPA policies as the disbanding of the Iraqi Army). The administration naively thought that Allawi, a distrusted former Baathist exile and a secularist in the midst of a largely devout Shia population, would be that leader. President Bush hailed him as the right man to shepherd Iraq towards democracy. In a September 2004 joint White House press conference, the president gushed, "Mr. Prime Minister, you've accomplished a great deal in less than the three months since the transition to a free Iraq that is governed by Iraqis. These have been months of steady progress … You have not faltered in a time of challenge … Good job."

In reality, Allawi's short-lived rule was marked by corruption and a brutal siege against Shia groups in Najaf, which earned him increasing enmity from the majority of the nation leading up to the first national elections in January 2005.

Despite the hopes (and rumored support) of the Bush administration, secular candidates flopped in the January elections. Sectarian Shia groups dominated, and a combination of Shia parties, dubbed the United Iraqi Alliance, gained a majority of the parliament, 140 of the 275 seats. The United States, fearful that the powerful Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) party would install a prime minister with close ties to Iran, pushed for the Dawa party's Ibrahim Jaafari. "He's our boy now, not Iran's," a White House official boasted when Jaafari was chosen to lead the nation. Now Jaafari was the new savior, expected to create the political compromises necessary for reconciliation and positive political momentum by uniting the disparate Shia parties while reaching out to disaffected Sunnis and reticent Kurds.

Needless to say, it wasn't long before the Bush administration and war supporters started to blame Jaafari for Iraq's continuing decline. He went from savior to scapegoat, and less than a year after his initial ascendance, following new elections in December 2005 (in which Iraqi voters again declined to grant any significant power to secular parties), the United States reportedly backed SCIRI leader Abd al-Mahdi for prime minister. When al-Mahdi, the reputed frontrunner, lost to Jaafari in an internal UIA election by just a single vote, there were immediate rumblings that Jaafari would not last.

Jaafari owed his short-lived victory to Sadrists, a growing political party led by the young, charismatic, fundamentalist, and virulently anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. American officials were horrified by this union and reportedly pushed hard for another internal UIA vote. The American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, informed Shia leaders that President Bush did not want Jaafari as prime minister. Jaafari struck back at this interference, saying, "[T]here's concern among the Iraqi people that the democratic process is being threatened. The source of this is that some American figures have made statements that interfere with the results of the democratic process."

But pressures increased, with Jaafari apparently unable to form a ruling coalition and cabinet formation moving at a glacial pace. Eventually the UIA agreed to hold new elections for prime minister. Shia rivalries once again dominated the maneuverings, and both SCIRI and Sadrists refused to have a member of the other party assume control. Thus the compromise candidate was, like Jaafari, a Dawa member: Nuri al-Maliki.

Yet again, war supporters chose to see in Maliki a savior, rather than recognize the reality of another weak, compromise candidate. Maliki lacked a power base from which to make sweeping decisions, and his attempts to build a coalition government stretched on for months. While the Bush administration praised the formation of a "national unity government," many observers quickly viewed Maliki as beholden to the Sadrists and unable or unwilling to compromise on divisive issues such as de-Baathification, oil revenue sharing, and the constitution. The Bush administration had no such qualms early on, however, with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice endorsing Maliki as "an Iraqi patriot," "very courageous and brave," and "a hardworking person who wants to see Iraq stable and democratic." President Bush himself lauded Maliki after meeting with him in June 2006, telling Americans that Maliki was the Iraqi leader to move the country forward. "I came away with a very positive impression," Bush said. "He was a serious-minded fellow who recognized that there had to be progress in order for the Iraqi people to believe the unity government will make a difference in their lives."

But it was not long before the administration turned on Maliki as well. This past winter, media reports claimed that the administration was trying to (re-)empower Sunnis in the wake of tremendous unhappiness on the part of regional Sunni allies, particularly Saudi Arabia. The Saudis reportedly rebuked Vice President Cheney during his visit to the Kingdom for facilitating Shia dominance in Iraq, and pro-war commentators began to loudly question Maliki's ability to govern effectively. Just five months after Bush's endorsement of Maliki, for example, an editorial by National Review condemned the Maliki government as "corrupt and ineffectual." And as recently as last month, American officials reportedly considered helping to replace Maliki with an Allawi-led coalition of secular Shia parties, Kurds, and moderate Sunnis. Of course, that some officials believed such a coalition would even have a chance of coming together, let alone ruling effectively in the face of opposition from the religious Shia electoral plurality, illustrates how profoundly ignorant the administration remains about the realities of the Iraqi political situation.

Now, though, the administration has returned to supporting the Maliki government, which is wracked by turmoil due to intra-Shia conflicts. To support Maliki, the administration has launched a military escalation, ostensibly to open up space for political compromise. The idea apparently is that if the escalation is successful in decreasing violence, the political players will have greater ability (and willingness?) to make the compromises that have eluded them for the past three years.

Despite continued attempts by the administration and its cheerleaders to measure the success of the escalation by comparing "before and after" casualty numbers, attention should really focus on the prospects for political advances while Baghdad is supposedly more secure. Such movement is, predictably, unlikely. We are once again being told that an Iraqi leader will now take control of the security and political situations in his nation, with the surge supposedly giving Maliki room to maneuver. But already his proposal to relax de-Baathification is being met with strong internal resistance, while a contentious oil revenue law, heavily backed (and reportedly written in part) by the United States, has failed even to reach parliament.


That's the history. What's the lesson? There are three major problems with the pattern of U.S. indecision, transitory support, and constant meddling in internal Iraqi political affairs over the last four years.

First, the approach distorts the American public's understanding of the conflict by perpetuating the absurd idea that Iraq can be fixed if we just get the right Iraqi leader in power. There is no Nelson Mandela waiting in the wings, no Ataturk -- not even a Yeltsin or a Nasser. The internal conflicts in Iraq, not to mention a constitution that essentially mandates proportional ethno-religious representation in parliament, currently preclude the ascendance of such a unifying leader. (Ironically, the Iraqi leader with perhaps the most ostensibly U.S.-friendly political profile, including a strong Shia base of support, the goal of a united Iraq, credibility with Sunni groups, and relatively weak ties to Iran, is … Sadr.) At this point, for a variety of reasons, the situation is beyond salvation at the hands of a single leader, and the administration should stop pretending otherwise.

Second, such relentless meddling in political conflicts we do not fully understand ensures that neither Iraqis nor other regional powers can establish any reliable relationship with the United States. We have become a proxy in the Shia-Sunni regional struggle, a pawn in Iraq's intra-Shia rivalries, and a joke in the Israel-Palestine peace process, all in large part because of the current administration's inability to discern and credibly advance its own policy. Because all the players believe -- correctly -- that U.S. positions are malleable, they will constantly seek to alter those positions and alliances. American inconsistency therefore fuels unpredictable behavior in and around Iraq, seriously damaging military and diplomatic efforts. And for all of these difficulties, our careening policies in the region never seem to actually gain anything.

Finally, the constant search for the "right" policy or the "right" Iraqi leader epitomizes the "Quiet American" idea that the United States can -- and should -- affect everything everywhere. Certainly our interests are especially acute in Iraq due to our military presence. Equally certain is that the administration's ham-handed efforts impair the efficacy of that military. Destructive idealism is no virtue; even a well-intentioned bull in a china shop nevertheless does tremendous damage. Sometimes the best thing to do in a delicate and difficult political situation is to take a step back from the fray.

Over the past four years, the only consistent Bush administration trait regarding Iraqi politics has been inconsistency. Soldiers and civilians die unnecessarily as the administration fails to decide what leader or group or idea to support in Iraq. This history of folly tells us a few things: The United States must recognize the electoral and demographic realities of Iraq, and stop shifting its policies every few months. Militarily, getting in the middle of a civil war is counterproductive to the goal of advancing a political solution. Real efforts at diplomacy, coupled with a drawdown of the inflammatory U.S. troop presence and enhanced economic and structural assistance, may help begin to stem Iraq's decline. And a good first step would be for American policymakers to stop lurching from one policy to another, pretending that each successive Iraqi leader will, or can, be a savior.

Alex Rossmiller is a Fellow at the National Security Network and a former intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency.

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