Get the Memo

This Wednesday, the day that President Bush was to meet with Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki in Jordan, The New York Times published a classified memo prepared by National Security advisor Stephen Hadley and his staff, drawn from Hadley's recent trip to Iraq, that revealed grave doubts about Maliki's ability and willingness to stem the rising violence in Iraq. The memo reveals an administration desperately trying to brainstorm ways to prop up Maliki as head of a reconstituted unity government, but it also hints at another key aspect of recent internal White House deliberations about how to proceed in Iraq: that the Hadley recommendation is not the only option under active consideration by the administration. Indeed, if it becomes untenable to support a unity government -- as the memo's authors make clear they believe may happen – there are administration elements advocating a complete abandonment of unity in favor of the Iraqi Shia.

Over Veterans' Day weekend, the entire national security team met for a White House-ordered review of Iraq strategy, as first reported by the Washington Post's Robin Wright. According to my sources, the memo, which was dated November 8 (two days before Veterans' Day), was intended as a starting point for those discussions. While it does not reflect all the positions within the administration over how to proceed in Iraq, the Hadley memo offers clues to the wider debate. Herewith a readers' guide to the plans that are emerging as dominant:

Option 1: Status quo plus. This option, as outlined in the Hadley memo, would be a last-ditch effort to prop up a reconstituted Iraqi government of national reconciliation with 20,000 additional U.S. troops to secure Baghdad. "The immediate obvious task is securing Baghdad," says military analyst Tom Donnelly of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It would be better to introduce more troops [to do so], but if you had to you could take them from [western Iraq's] Anbar [province]. … I think if we don't produce positive results in Baghdad in six months, the war is over."

The plan would be to try to forge a new and more effective Iraqi government coalition that would include the Sunnis, Kurds, and the Shias, while engineering a tilt within Maliki's Shia coalition away from Sadr and toward fellow Shiite leader Ayatollah Abdul Aziz Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its attendant Badr Brigade militia. (Hakim is scheduled to arrive in Washington next week on an official visit.) The Mahdi Army loyal to radical young Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr would continue to be the enemy. Washington would also engage Saudi Arabia and regional neighbors to encourage Sunni support for Maliki, and Syria and Iran would be pressured to limit their support for combatants.

"Does anyone think at this stage we have ability to build a political base among moderates?" asks Boston University-based military analyst Andrew Bacevich, reflecting on the memo. "We have been trying to do [much of what is in the Hadley memo] for the last three years. Along those lines, it seems to be a policy of 'come on, try harder. Yes, it hasn't worked for three years, but come on, try harder.'"

Option 2: Tilt to the Shias. Among the views advanced at the Veterans' Day weekend meeting was one seemingly at odds with the gist of the Hadley memo: This option, described to me as a fallback position supported by Cheney's office and elements of the National Security Council, would have the U.S. abandon the immediate goal of national reconciliation and instead pick a side -- the Shia. The "unleash the Shia" option would have the United States back a Shiite coalition that would include SCIRI leader Hakim and his Badr Brigades as the core of an Iraqi Army under the direct control of Prime Minister Maliki. Even as the United States sided with the Shia, Hadley's memo makes clear that the United States would at the same time press Maliki to distance himself from Sadr and his Mahdi army. Note in particular the Hadley memo's language concerning the importance of rapidly expanding the size of, and Maliki's control over, the Iraqi Army: "Seek ways to strengthen Maliki immediately by giving him additional control over Iraqi forces, although we must recognize that in the immediate time frame, we would likely be able to give him more authority over existing forces, not more forces." Further down, Hadley adds, "Ask Casey to develop a plan to empower Maliki, including … more forces under Maliki's command and control." Military sources say the key to this control is the Badr Brigades.

Increasingly, we're hearing talk of "picking a winner" or "backing the Shiites versus policing a civil war" from elements in the Pentagon and intelligence community. "The situation requires that the administration abandon its long-held goal of national reconciliation and instead 'pick a winner' in Iraq," the Post's Thomas Ricks and Robin Wright cited a U.S. intelligence official as saying Monday. "He said he understands that means the Sunnis are likely to bolt from the fragile government. 'That's the price you're going to have to pay,' he said."

Option 3: Reduce U.S. forces, hunker down, focus on al-Qaeda and Iran, and ride out the civil war under massively reduced goals and expectations. This tracks most closely with the "Redeploy and Contain" option reportedly under consideration by the Iraq Study Group, that would have U.S. troops move to fortified bases in or outside of Iraq, periodically coming out to launch counterinsurgency strikes against al-Qaeda in western Iraq's al Anbar province, and provide ramped up training and logistical support to Iraqi forces, while drawing down over the coming year to 60,000 to 70,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The Hadley memo, with its advocacy of deploying an additional 20,000 U.S. troops to Iraq in the coming weeks, would suggest the White House is not amenable to this option without another effort to surge troops to secure Baghdad.

At this moment, it is not clear who leaked the Hadley memo and why. But one possibility is that it might have been a shot in a bureaucratic turf war aimed at making people talk about the futility of Option 1, national reconciliation, with the intention of accelerating Option 2 or 3. Even if that wasn't the intent of the leak, it may be the result: Hours after the memo was published, Bush's long-planned meeting with Maliki was delayed. Asked if the delay was due to the memo's revelations that the White House lacked confidence in Maliki, White House advisor Dan Bartlett was cited by the Washington Post saying, "Absolutely not." A rare public expression of certainty in an increasingly murky landscape.

Laura Rozen is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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