Saturday, July 26, 2008

More on the Surge and the Political Realities of Iraq

This week has been an unmitigated disaster for McCain in the foreign policy arena, supposedly the source of his greatest advantage. Apart from the Maliki government asserting its opinion that US troops should begin preparations for withdrawal, McCain exhibited quite ably his inability to grasp anything in international relations beyond that of 'gut feeling,' a reality that became more clear each time McCain tried to walk back his previous statements.

After expressing anachronistic support for the efficacy of the Surge, McCain was forced to create a new history, explaining that the Surge was actually just a term employed to describe a general counterinsurgency strategy that began well before anybody thought to mention it. A nice try, but an argument that simply doesn't hold up under scrutiny, like most of McCain's policy statements. The term 'Surge' has been used from the start to describe the increase in US troops beginning in February 2007, to go back and retroactively apply the term to a overarching strategy post mortem flies in the face of 17 months of use.

But even if we allow for a midstream change of definition, McCain's claim that "the Surge has succeeded" doesn't hold up under his own definition of the term.

By controlling the violence, we can pave the way for a political settlement. Once the government wields greater authority, however, Iraqi leaders must take significant steps on their own. These include a commitment to go after the militias, a reconciliation process for insurgents and Baathists, a more equitable distribution of government resources, provincial elections that would bring Sunnis and the government, and a large increase in employment-generating economic projects.

In other words, the true aim of the Surge was exactly what Barack Obama and everyone else has been saying it was, political reconciliation, and on that front the Iraqis have failed miserably. They've pushed back provincial elections into next year, the country is still a broken arrangement of fiefdoms, and there is still no plan for dispersement of oil money to name just a few shortcomings.

The Maliki government has indeed gone after militias, most notably in Basra, but even that operation failed to achieve a pure strategic victory, as the most recent issue of Newsweek examines in a profile of the governor of Basra, Mohammed Waeli. Waeli exemplifies the ambiguities of enemies and allies that both Bush and McCain declare they ignore in favor of a 'gut' approach to foreign policy. On paper, Waeli, as a government official, is a friend of the US and Maliki and a ally in the fight against insurgents and Iran. In reality, he is an opportunist who has made millions off of oil smuggling and overseen the transformation of Basra from relatively liberal (for the Middle East) into a Shiite fundamentalist city indicative of Iranian influence throughout eastern and southern Iraq.

Even as Maliki and the US forces must concern themselves with insurgents from the street, they must also battle officials like Waeli who have carved out a profitable niche and will be reluctant to give it up in favor of political reconciliation. Waeli is an indication of the realities facing the country as a whole, a vast, diverse collection of power centers resistant to becoming part of a united whole. The number of US troops in Iraq has little bearing on solving that core issue.

If the past week has been an illustration of anything, it's that McCain is trying to make up for lost time by showing that he has the ability to grasp the intricacies of real-world conflicts and put away his past reliance on blanket statements and assessments of good versus evil. Unfortunately for him, every time he rolls out a new theory, facts and history shoot it down rather hastily.


McCain's Foreign Policy Illiteracy, July 22
Iraq Withdrawal: Clutching at Straws, July 22

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