If any Americans could truly understand Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, George Bush and Karl Rove should. All three firmly believe that the successful politician must above all cultivate his base -- not that any of them can point to recent successes.
In refusing to do anything to curtail the anti-Sunni pogroms of Moqtada al-Sadr's legions, Maliki, after all, is just dancin' with the ones that brung him. He owes his office to Sadr. More broadly, he is the governmental leader of the Shiites at the very moment they and the Sunnis have embarked on a ghastly civil war. He is nominally also Iraq's prime minister, but if there was even a scintilla of doubt about the true object of his loyalties, it was dispelled by his execution of Saddam Hussein. Maliki is the prime minister of Shiite rage, a position that offers a good deal more security than that of dispassionate prime minister of a nation at war with itself.
Yet last night, President Bush announced that Maliki has changed. He also announced that he is sending additional U.S. forces to Iraq, but he's done that before, in almost comparable numbers, to no good effect. What's different this time, we are to believe, is that the Iraqis will join us in trying to suppress the sectarian violence.
Maliki will order his forces to swarm Sadr City. He'll deploy Kurdish battalions throughout Baghdad, since Sunnis and Shiites aren't suited for the task (assuming, however improbably, that the Kurds want to hurl themselves into the middle of the Sunni-Shiite war).
Why Bush believes the Iraqi prime minister will actually do this is anybody's guess. For Maliki to cordon off Sadr City is a little like Bush blockading Southern Baptist churches, or surrounding the headquarters of the National Rifle Association and telling everyone to come out with hands up. Bush expects Maliki to turn against his own -- a gambit nowhere to be found in Bush and Rove's own political playbook.
America's most polarizing president is telling Iraq's polarizing prime minister to stop polarizing. It's possible, I suppose, Bush told Maliki that the lesson of our November election is that polarizing doesn't always work to your advantage, but the fact that Bush has only stepped up his commitment to his ruinous policy in Iraq, against overwhelming bipartisan advice to the contrary, suggests that that idea hasn't even crossed his mind.
Bush, we're told, is now interested chiefly in the verdict of history, hoping that historians hence will view him as another Harry Truman, who fought for American values and interests even after the electorate had turned against him. But neither the presidents nor their wars are analogous. As was not the case in the war between the Koreas, neither side in Iraq's civil strife is aligned with our values or interests. Unlike Bush, Truman sought and obtained UN support for our efforts.
But suppose Maliki is interested in the verdict of history, too. Suppose he wants his lifelong commitment to the Shiite cause to be crowned by his transformation of majority-Shiite Iraq into a fundamentally (though not necessarily fundamentalist) Shiite republic. Why, again, does Bush expect Maliki to change his spots when Bush hasn't changed his?
Indeed, one of Bush's defining characteristics is his unyielding adherence to the same policies even as the justifications for those policies shift or negate themselves. He first sought his tax cuts because our peacetime budget surplus was too large, then because we were at war and consumers needed to spend as though we weren't, then because our deficit could best be closed by the rich retaining more money to invest (albeit in China). He sought the war in Iraq to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction and to stop Hussein from sheltering al-Qaeda. As Ted Kennedy reminded us yesterday, the weapons didn't exist, Hussein is gone and Bush's war has only brought al-Qaeda more recruits. But our presence in Iraq continues unabated and, if Bush gets his way, will be escalated.
Bush's speech contained some alterations of policy, of course. Way too late, he's calling for a Marshall Plan for Iraq, with New Dealish public employment projects supplanting the flat-tax policies he had hoped to bring to the Middle East. But our basic policy remains basically the same, the expressed desire of the American electorate to reverse course notwithstanding. Unless and until Congress stops him, Bush will keep on doing what he's doing, and the hard-core conservatives will stick with him. The mystery is why he believes Maliki, and the hard-core Shiites, will behave any differently.
Harold Meyerson is acting executive editor of The American Prospect. A version of this column originally appeared in The Washington Post.
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