By Scott Ritter
It has become a mantra of sorts among the faltering Republican candidates: Victory is at hand in Iraq. Mitt Romney, in particular, has taken to so openly embracing the “success” of the U.S. troop “surge” that it has become the centerpiece of his litany of attacks on the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton.
“Think of what’s happened this year,” Romney recently implored a crowd in Iowa. “General [David] Petraeus came in to report to Congress and Hillary Clinton said she couldn’t believe him. She said she just couldn’t believe General Petraeus. Now think about that. He’s been proven to be right. He should be on the cover, by the way, of Time magazine, and not Putin.”
Clinton, for her part, has stood her ground. Addressing a crowd of voters in Iowa, she took a swipe back at Romney: “We all know the Republican candidates are just plain wrong when they declare mission accomplished about the troop surge.” She went on to note that U.S. casualty figures in Iraq for 2007 were at an all-time high, and that for all of the positive reports concerning the surge, Iraq remains a nation on the verge of a civil war, no closer today to a political solution than it was before the escalation. She promised that, if nominated, “I will not hesitate to go toe to toe with Republicans in the debates to end the war as quickly and responsibly as possible.”
Therein lies the catch. How does Clinton explain her commitment to quick and responsible withdrawal in the context of the short-term reduction of violence in Iraq achieved by the surge? How does she propose to rectify the admitted internal shortcomings inside Iraq, which she likens to near-civil war conditions, with her pledge for a “responsible” withdrawal? If one takes at face value the alleged successes of the surge, it is difficult to justify the embrace of an alternative policy option. Likewise, if one chooses to criticize the surge as all smoke and mirrors, as Clinton has, and yet argues for a quick and responsible end to the war in Iraq without revealing the details of how this would be accomplished, the rhetoric comes across as remarkably shallow.
I’m not one inclined to speak out in support of Hillary Clinton. She made her bed with Iraq, and she should now be forced to sleep in it. However, she is right that nothing the surge has accomplished so far remotely approaches a solution to these enormously destabilizing realities: a largely disaffected Sunni population which finds the current Shiite-dominated government of Iraq fundamentally unacceptable; a decisively fractured Shiite population torn between an Iranian-dominated government on the one hand (controlled by the political proxies of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, itself an Iranian proxy) or an indigenous firebrand, Muqtada al-Sadr; and a false paradise in Kurdistan, where the dream of an independent Kurdish homeland corrupts a viable Kurdish autonomy and threatens regional instability by provoking Turkish military intervention.
“Quickly and responsibly”? The problem with Clinton is that when it comes to Iraq, she is as shallow as the next candidate, and once one gets past her flowery rhetoric and protestations of expertise, it becomes crystal clear that she, like almost everyone else in the presidential race from either party, hasn’t a clue about what is really happening on the ground in Iraq.
There are, in fact, five Iraqs that must be dealt with by a singular American policy. The first is the Iraq of the Green Zone, and by that I mean the Iraqi government brought about by the “purple finger revolution” of January 2005. Those sham elections produced a sham democracy which lacks any viability outside of the never-never land of the U.S.-controlled Green Zone. This lack of centralized authority has led some, like Sen. Joe Biden and the U.S. Senate, to advocate the division of Iraq into three de facto states, one Sunni, one Shiite and one Kurdish, lumped together in a loose federation overseen by a weak central authority. Given that the 2005 elections were designed to prevent this very sort of Iraqi breakup to begin with, one can begin to understand the fallacy of any policy that contradicts the very foundation upon which it is built. But this sort of behavior defines the entire Iraq fiasco, one contradiction built upon another, until there has been woven a web of contradictions from which no clarity can ever be found. That, in a sentence, is the reality of the current Iraqi government. It is almost as if by design the Bush administration has cobbled together a wreck incapable of governance. How does Hillary Clinton propose to deal “quickly and responsibly” with such a mess?
The second Iraq is the one being managed from Tehran. This Iraq, stretching from Basra in the south up into Baghdad, exists outside of the reach of the compromised disaster that is the current government of Iraq, and is instead dominated by SCIRI and its military wing, the Badr Brigade. Here one finds the unvarnished reality of the dream of the pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiites, those who reached political maturity festering in the anti-Saddam ideology cooked up in the theocracy of Iran. Given the roots of this political movement, bred and paid for by the reactionary mullahs of Iran, the politics of revenge that it embraces should come as no surprise. However, whereas the mullahs in Tehran seek long-term political stability guaranteed by a friendly, compliant government in Baghdad, the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiites seem more focused on rapidly reversing decades of inequities, real and perceived. Revenge is not a policy that breeds stability, and yet it is the politics of revenge that dominates the mind-set of SCIRI.
Serving as a major domestic counterweight to SCIRI is the indigenous grass-roots Iraqi Shiite movement controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr, the third Iraq. Possessing similar geographic reach as SCIRI, the Iraq of the “Mahdi Army” is one which rejects the SCIRI proxy government operating out of the Green Zone as but a tool of the American occupation, and the SCIRI movement itself as a tool of Iran. While maintaining close relations with Tehran, al-Sadr mocks those who would govern in south Iraq as having Farsi, vice Arabic, as their first tongue. The movement headed by al-Sadr bases its credibility on its pure Iraqi roots, derived as it is from the Shiites of Iraq who actually lived under the rule of Saddam Hussein. Surprisingly, these Shiites are more inclined to find common cause with their fellow Iraqis, including Sunnis who are disaffected with the current government, than with their SCIRI co-religionists. While much has been made of the Sunni-Shiite divide, the fact is that one of the most serious threats to stability in Iraq is the emerging Shiite-versus-Shiite conflict between al-Sadr and SCIRI.
The fourth Iraq is the Iraq of the Sunni. The first three years of the American occupation were dominated by violence emanating from the Sunni heartland as those elements loyal to Saddam, and those opposed to Shiite domination, worked together to make the American occupation, and any affiliated post-Saddam government derived from the occupation, a failure. To this extent, elements of the Sunni of Iraq, drawn primarily from the intelligence services of the Hussein regime, facilitated the creation and operation of al-Qaida in Iraq. The work of this Iraqi al-Qaida has been successful in destabilizing the country to the point that the United States has been compelled to fund, equip and train Sunni militias in an effort to confront al-Qaida, as well as to make up for the real shortfalls of the central Iraqi government when it comes to security and stability in the Sunni areas. The newfound relationship between the Sunni and the United States, especially in Anbar province, is cited as a major factor in the success of the surge.
The fifth Iraq is that of the Kurds. Long hailed as a poster child of stability and prosperity, the fundamental problems inherent in post-Saddam Kurdistan are coming to a head. The inherent incompatibility between the “sanctuary” created by the United States through the northern “no-fly zone” and post-Saddam Iraq is more evident today than ever. The Kurds, pleased with their status as a “special case” in the eyes of the Bush administration, have made no honest effort to assimilate into a centralized system of government. Furthermore, the false dream of an independent Kurdish homeland has not only poisoned relations with the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad (witness the conflict over oil deals in Kurdistan and the Iraqi national oil law), but also between the U.S. and its NATO ally, Turkey. The Iraqi Kurds’ ongoing support of Kurdish nationalist groups in Turkey and Iran has led to increased instability, the most current manifestation of which are the ongoing cross-border attacks into Iraqi territory by the Turkish military. And, given the high level of emotion attached to matters pertaining to Kurdish nationalism, the likelihood of the situation de-escalating anytime soon is remote.
Five Iraqs, and one Iraq policy ill-suited to the reality of any single situation, yet alone the whole. The success of the surge is pure fantasy, a fancy bit of illusion that would do David Copperfield proud, but not the people of Iraq or the United States. The surge addresses events in Iraq based upon short-term objectives (i.e., reducing the immediate level of violence) without resolving any of the deep-seated, long-term issues that promote the violence to begin with. It is like placing a Band-Aid on a gaping chest wound. The pink, frothy blood may not be visible on the surface, but the wound remains as grave as ever, and because it is not being directly attended to, it only gets worse. Eventually the lungs will collapse and the body will die. This is the reality of Iraq today. Thanks to the surge, we do not see the horrific wound that is Iraq for what it truly is. As such, our policies do nothing to cure the problem, and in doing nothing, only make the matter worse.
History will show that this period of relative “calm” we attribute to the surge is but the pause before the storm. Hillary Clinton is correct to label the surge a failed strategy. But her motivation for doing so rests more with her desire to position herself politically on the domestic front than it is a reflection of a thoughtful Iraq policy. So long as American politicians, regardless of political affiliation, seek to solve the problem of Iraq from a domestic political perspective, then the problem that is Iraq will never be resolved, either “quickly” or “responsibly.” Iraq is an unpopular war. There are, therefore, no “popular” solutions, only realistic ones.
The five-dimensional problem embodied in post-Saddam Iraq cannot be bundled up into a neat package. America, and its leaders, must do the right thing in Iraq, not for Iraq, but for America, even when doing so requires making some tough decisions. Narrow the problem set from five dimensions to two, and the problem becomes more manageable. For my money, I choose working with the Sunnis and al-Sadr to create a viable coalition, and then cutting a deal with Iran that trades off better relations in exchange for encouraging the current failed Iraqi government to step aside in favor of new elections. And the Kurds? Autonomy or nothing.
My loyalty is first and foremost to the United States, and when we look at the situation in Iraq from a genuine national security perspective, there is no threat worthy of the continued sacrifice being asked of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. As such, the only policy option worthy of consideration is that which brings our troops home as expeditiously as possible. Politicians who embrace a different policy are simply using the sacrifice of our service members as a shield behind which to hide their ignorance of Iraqi issues, and their personal cowardice, which manifests itself any time brave young men and women are allowed to die in order to preserve someone’s political viability.
As we in the United States celebrate this holiday season, let us not forget those who serve overseas in uniform, and the sacrifices they make in our name. And as we approach the coming election season, let us never forget those politicians who would have these sacrifices continue in order to safeguard their individual political fortune. This applies to all who seek the nomination for the office of the presidency, even those like Hillary Clinton who claim to embrace an anti-war position but whose words and actions strongly suggest something else.
AP photo / Dusan Vranic