Monday, June 04, 2007

Wallerstein on Ending the Iraq War

Commentary No. 210, June 1, 2007
"Ending the Iraq War: Two Competing Plans"

There are only two serious plans - or perhaps one should call them plots - to end the Iraq War. Many will be surprised to realize that one of them is being formulated by George W. Bush, the other by Moqtada al-Sadr. The two plans share the presupposition that the Iraq War is a quagmire in which the proponents of these plans are losing more each day. But otherwise the two plans/plots are quite in conflict one with the other.

When things are going wrong in every way, realists throw over maximum objectives and seek to settle for at least something crucial. So the analytic question to ask is what is absolutely crucial for George W. Bush and what is absolutely crucial for Moqtada al-Sadr?

If we start with Bush, first of all forget the rhetoric and forget what had been his objectives at the outset of the Iraq invasion. Think of where he is today. He has lost the majority of American popular support for the Iraq War (down to one-third, according to the latest polls), and all signs seem to indicate that unless there is a military upturn, the figures will be even worse at the end of the summer. As for the military situation, Gen. Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, seems to be the brilliant captain of a sinking ship, and nothing the United States favors in terms of Iraqi politics seems to be happening. The Republican Party risks paying a very heavy price for this in the 2008 elections.

So, if you were Bush, what would you try to salvage? Of the long list of U.S. objectives in Iraq, the most important has been the establishment of a long-term U.S. military base in the country. In terms of U.S. politics, Bush would undoubtedly like to minimize the negative impact on the 2008 elections. And if these were the two things that took priority, how could you do it? A recent leak indicates what plot is being concocted.

If, in early 2008, the United States announced that it was reducing its troop presence by half, and that it was largely withdrawing its troops from frontline action, what would be the consequence? First of all, it would blunt the attack by the Democrats that nothing is being done to reduce U.S. casualties and involvement. Secondly, it would put the Democrats in the embarrassing situation of having to say whether or not they favor long-term bases in Iraq. Chances are that many, perhaps most, Democratic leaders favor this. Chances are also that even a Democratic president, if elected in 2009, would continue such a policy.

What would the United States lose in this? It would probably lose its ability to interfere on a daily basis in Iraqi politics. It might well lose the oil bill Bush (and the Democrats) want the Iraqi parliament to enact. It would probably lead to increased Iranian soft power in Iraq. But the United States would have the bases, and it would blunt blame on the Republican Party for the Iraq fiasco.

Can the United States do this? That is where the counterplan (or counterplot) of Moqtada al-Sadr comes in? Once again forget the rhetoric, and forget what al-Sadr might have wanted in 2003. Look at his dilemmas. He is strong politically and militarily, but he has powerful opponents within Iraq. He has an organization not entirely under his control. If the United States withdraws precipitately, it is not at all sure that, in the resulting greater chaos, he would come out ahead.

So what is his bottom line? He wants the United States to be fully withdrawn, and he wants a reasonably strong Iraqi central government. He is a Shia leader to be sure, but also an Iraqi nationalist. His base is in Baghdad, and too much federalism would create great problems for his survival. For what would he be willing to settle? What is his plot?

The plot seems clear, since the design is emerging so publicly. He wants to make a deal with the Sunni resistance. He and they share three interests: getting the United States troops to leave, curbing the Sunni-Shia violence which is now getting out of their control, and creating a relatively strong central government. The deal would have to involve greater Sunni (even Baathist) participation in government. But it would also involve a joint action to rid Iraq of al-Qaeda elements. And it would involve the defeat of the oil bill. This latter is probably easy since almost no one in Iraq favors the bill, albeit opposing it for different reasons. And they would oppose long-term U.S. bases.

What would al-Sadr be giving up? Primarily his deep antagonism to the Baathists. Could he pull this off? There are various internal obstacles: his Shia rivals, the Kurds, and the United States, maybe also the Iranians. But he would be holding high the banner of Iraqi nationalism, and that could in the end resonate deeply in Iraq.

These two plots will begin to clash openly in 2008 and 2009. It is not sure yet which will prevail.



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