Wake Me Up When September Ends

September: the month when the verdict on the Iraq war finally arrives. Goodbye to equivocation, to tangential focus, to extenuating circumstance. The last Friedman unit expires when the back-to-school sales do -- because that's when General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker will report on the fate of the surge. Restless Republicans, war-weary wobblers, craven appeasers -- deliverance arrives for everyone. (Well, maybe not everyone.)

"Many of my Republican colleagues have been promised they will get a straight story on the surge by September," Senator Gordon Smith told The Washington Post Monday. Don't call it a timetable.

At the risk of prejudging the much-hyped testimony, it's not hard to hazard a guess as to what's going to happen come September. Petraeus and Crocker will have just enough indications of progress in Baghdad to be able to present a subtle, nuanced portrait of the Iraq war. Chances are the national and provincial governments will still exist, the Green Zone won't be stormed, the Iraqi army and police will be mostly in place, and not everyone will be dead. You know, progress!

Petraeus and Crocker will doubtlessly be able to cite tactical successes for the surge. But it used to be that the point of escalation was to subdue Iraqi sectarianism. And no one needs to wait until September to know the magnitude and direction of that crucial metric. Over the last several weeks, practically every U.S.-backed effort at sectarian reconciliation has shown signs of substantive collapse. Perversely, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will, in all likelihood, press forward with neutered reconciliation measures in order to remain in good standing with his American patrons. And in order to sustain what residual political support remains for the war, the White House will grasp hold of a sham reconciliation process as a pretext for continuing the escalation. In the process, the administration will have fully unmoored the surge from any broader strategic purpose.

Take the most hyped reconciliation effort first. In February, Maliki's cabinet approved a draft law on the distribution of Iraq's oil wealth -- a necessary step toward healing the sectarian divides that have ripped the country apart. Understandably, the law was something of a jumble: A national council would set overall oil policy, but Iraq's various regions could negotiate their own deals with oil conglomerates. Accounts controlled by the provincial governments will receive disbursements from Baghdad according to population, despite the fact that there hasn't been a reliable census for decades. To the U.S. embassy, which heavily pushed the law -- and may have even written it -- lack of clarity is the key to satisfying both the advocates of decentralization (the Kurds) and those pushing for national control (the Sunnis). "The agreement on the oil law should give us confidence that Iraqis are willing and able to take the steps needed for Iraq's success," outgoing U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad wrote in a celebratory March op-ed.

But a funny thing happened to a law designed to entirely satisfy no one: Everyone hated it. Maliki bottled the law up for two months, during which a plethora of objections emerged. The Kurds deemed unacceptable certain annexes to the draft guaranteeing that control over future oil fields -- such as those in underdeveloped Kurdistan -- would go to Baghdad. Oil-poor Sunnis feared that regional contract negotiation would forever consign them to poverty, and began to whisper that the Shiite-led national government was ready to sign away the country's oil resources to foreign companies. Rather than embrace the law, the largest Sunni parliamentary bloc, the Accordance Front, reacted with outrage, saying Maliki first had to provide security for the Sunnis in Baghdad. It was a difficult spectacle for the Shiites, who had sent the bill to parliament on the eve of last week's major regional conference in Egypt so as to boost Maliki's prestige.

Just two short months ago, Khalilzad termed the oil law "a defining piece of legislation. Crocker has since begged off any such characterization." It's the same with most other efforts to forge political reconciliation. Constitutional reform, which Khalilzad promised the Sunnis in 2005 in exchange for their participation in the political process, was supposed to have occurred last year. A relaxation of the de-Baathification laws that Sunnis took as a direct attack on them, has practically disappeared from the agenda after rumors flew that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite religious authority, objected to it. It's hardly surprising that Crocker told reporters last week that reconciliation is "not so much about getting specific elements of legislation passed," but rather building "momentum legislatively and otherwise that gives impetus to a broader process" of healing. If that signals anything, it's that the U.S. will accept any measures ostensibly aimed at reconciliation, regardless of their substantive impact, and trumpet them as successes.

The oil law, for instance, is hardly a dead letter. The Kurds control 58 seats in parliament, while the two Sunni blocs control 55. If they're unable to bind together to stop the bill -- conceivable, since they object for opposite reasons -- the 128-seat Shiites will be able to advance the bill as is, even if the 30-seat bloc controlled by Moqtada al-Sadr opts to oppose it. Khalilzad can watch from his new post at the United Nations as the Bush administration receives a Pyrrhic victory: a reconciliation measure passed against the efforts of the factions it was supposed to mollify. If the Kurds and the Sunnis succeed in stopping the bill, however, the incoherence of their coalition ensures that Iraq will be no closer to deciding whether regionalism or centralism will govern oil revenue.

The same is true of constitutional reform. Khalilzad ensured the passage of the constitution in 2005 despite Sunni objections by promising the Sunnis an opportunity for post-approval revision. May 15 is the deadline for all factions to submit their desired amendments, which are sure to be extensive and conflicting: For example, the Kurds want a harder deadline for a referendum on the status of Kirkuk while the Sunnis want to stop the referendum outright.

But the obstacles to actually changing the constitution are extensive. According to a member of the constitution committee, Ammar Tu'ma from the Shiite Fadhila Party, all amendments will be submitted to parliament for an up-or-down vote. If that doesn't fail to stop reform, the jumble of amendments will then go to the people for a referendum after two months. Defeat is assured if two-thirds of the voters in three provinces or more vote no -- an easy threshold to clear in the Shiite south.

All these legislative snarls reveal the deeper problem: What each side calls "reconciliation" is merely the pressing of parochial sectarian advantage. (Or, to paraphrase Don Oberdorfer's famous statement about Richard Nixon, what each faction means by "reconciliation" is what its rivals mean by "defeat.")  Since last month's walkout of six Sadrist ministers from Maliki's cabinet, the Sunnis have smelled Maliki's blood in the water. Before the Sharm el-Sheikh regional conference started last week, the Association of Muslim Scholars, one of the most influential Sunni organizations in Iraq, denounced Maliki for "crimes against the Iraqi people," sending a signal to already-distrustful Sunni diplomats to oppose Maliki in Egypt. The Accordance Front is threatening to pull out of the political process entirely, complaining of a "bitter harvest" for Sunni participation. Tariq al-Hashemi, an Accordance Front leader and one of Iraq's vice presidents, views changing the constitution as a way for "the identity of my country" to be "restored" -- that is, for Maliki to fall, in anticipation of the outright collapse of Shiite rule.

All of which makes Maliki's path clear. On the oil law and the constitution, Maliki loses nothing by moving the bills forward: Multifaceted factional acrimony stifles the former while Shiite numerical superiority scuttles the latter. To the Bush administration, he'll appear a frustrated but well-intentioned national figure deserving of continued support. Meanwhile, as the Sunnis attempt to bring him down, Maliki will respond in the streets. The Post reported last month that Maliki's office purges the security services of commanders who pursue Shiite militias too aggressively. Probably as a result, the Iraqi Army, according to the New York Sun is much more eager to target Sunni insurgents than their Shiite counterparts.

And what of the surge? The ostensible reason that the Bush administration opted for the strategy in the first place was to stem precisely the escalation in sectarian acrimony that's unfolding now. Bob Gates, the off-message defense secretary, stated in March that unless the "reconciliation process (goes) forward… then the strategy won't work." The process may move forward, but the actual reconciliation is moving backward. That's nothing new: The Bush administration favored process over substance with such sectarian milestones as the 2005 elections and the constitution, both of which exacerbated the problems they were intended to alleviate.

Already, Petraeus's deputy, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, has backed continuing the surge into April 2008, regardless of what happens with Iraqi politics. In this manner, escalation becomes its own justification and tactical myopia becomes wisdom. Expect to see a lot of that come September.