April 6, 2006
It didn't take long after the invasion of Iraq began in March 2003 for
one of the radioactive words of the Vietnam era to make its first
appearance, even if in stunted, referential form. Media pundits, former
military men, and others began fretting, even as American soldiers
advanced, about the "Q word." They were, of course, worrying about
entering the infamous "quagmire" -- the word many Americans had applied
to Vietnam as the war there dragged on and on and on. Three years after
the fall of Baghdad, with the Bush administration well into their Iraqi
version of the quagmire, a couple of letters closer to the ultimate
ABCs of political life, are now making their appearance. And little
Both of these probably began their journey from the political
Internet into the mainstream in mid-February when, of all people,
conservative icon William F. Buckley raised them both in a
near-tombstone op-ed published in the National Review and entitled It Didn't Work.
With that single piece, you could promptly add "D" and "F" to the Iraq
alphabet. "One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has
failed," Buckley wrote and in a single bound, "failure" made it onto
the list of the Bush administration's official ills in Iraq. "Iraqi
animosities," he added, "have proved uncontainable by an invading army
of 130,000 Americans." Buckley then suggested that the President had
somehow to admit to this reality in order to ensure "the survival" of
his larger "strategic policies." Offering a final line of advice, he
ended: "And the kernel here is the acknowledgment of defeat."
Defeat. The unthinkable. Call it the dreaded "D" word. And suddenly
on the scene was the part of the Vietnam era that the President's high
officials and neocon supporters never considered in their wildest
dreams and so never spent a day preparing contingency plans for. Now,
like it or not, believe it or not, they are in terra incognita and, to mix metaphors, visibly at sea.
Shibley Telhami of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy -- though he stuck with the "F" word (for failure) -- recently noted the obvious in a piece written for the Baltimore Sun:
"Consider the stunning magnitude of the failure. Iraq has been the top
priority for the world's only superpower for the past three years, and
a central one for many regional and international powers. The United
States, intent on keeping Iraq together, has spent more resources in
that country than any state ever has spent on another in the history of
the world. Yet the prospect of civil war and a divided Iraq are now
greater than they had been at any time."
In fact, on the civil war front, things are already devolving at a rapid pace. As UPI's
pointed out, citing the recent monthly figure of 900 "sectarian
killings" (which may actually be low), "Iraq is a nation of 25 million
people. In the United States, that level of killing would
proportionately equal almost 11,000 people killed in riots, reprisal
killings and sectarian clashes in a single month." And that's not the
half of it. In the midst of this growing horror, Bush administration
policy is in chaos. But let me leave it to Robert Dreyfuss, who covers
national security matters for Rolling Stone among other
magazines, to reveal the contours of the present situation and suggest
the ways in which the "D" word may be with us for a while.
Dreyfuss, by the way, is the author of a remarkable new book,
The Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam
-- a striking history of how, for the last half century, successive
American administrations have bedded down with right-wing Islamic
movements and what that has meant for our own moment. Tom
Cutting and Running in Baghdad
By Robert Dreyfuss
Too late, the urgency of the crisis in Iraq, and the sheer ugliness of
its civil war, seems finally to be dawning on the Bush administration.
As usual, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and their stalwart
secretaries of state and defense, are johnnies-come-lately in their
ability to understand how far gone Iraq is. Perhaps, as has been the
case in the past, that is because they continue flagrantly to disregard
what they are told by analysts in the U.S. intelligence community.
Before, during, and after the invasion of Iraq, with a rising sense of
alarm, the CIA, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and
Research (INR), and other agencies warned the Bush-Cheney team that the
destruction of Iraq's central government could tumble the country into
a civil war. In 2004, of course, the president famously dismissed such
CIA warnings as "just a guess." Well, guess what, Mr. President? It's
civil war. And it isn't pretty.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a leading know-nothing on Iraq
-- it was her utter ignorance of the Middle East as national security
adviser through 2004 that allowed the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal to get away
with so much -- jetted to Baghdad in a hurry over the weekend. She
dragged along Jack Straw, Britain's foreign secretary, gallantly
sleeping on the floor of her own plane while giving him her bed. No
doubt, the Rice-Straw voyage to Britain's old colonial stomping grounds
in Baghdad was the result of a panicky summons from the U.S.
ambassador-cum-proconsul in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who seems to be at
his wit's end in trying to solve the Rubik's Cube of Iraq's sectarian
and ethnic political puzzle. Ambassador Khalilzad spent most of 2005
cozying up to the religious Shiites of Iraq while thundering about the
threat of the Sunni-led insurgency. Late last year, however, he began
-- imperceptibly at first, then with some speed -- maneuvering to
switch sides: first pledging to talk to the former Baathists and to
Sunni resistance groups, then ordering U.S. troops to attack the most
heinous outcroppings of the Shiite fundamentalists'
Finally, in advance of summoning Rice, the ambassador threw down the
gauntlet once and for all. Led by Khalilzad, the United States has
definitively broken with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the
hopelessly incompetent religious fanatic that Washington helped bring
back to Iraq in the first place, installing him as puppet prime
minister of the interim government created (after months of
back-stabbing and deal-making) in the aftermath of the January 2005
elections. Khalilzad seems to have discovered what just about everyone
else in Iraq already knew: that Jaafari is closely allied to the
In a recent interview in the Washington Post,
Khalilzad slammed Iran and its Shiite allies, accusing the Iranian
military and secret service of sponsoring the militias, paramilitary
forces, and death squads wreaking havoc in Baghdad and across southern
Iraq. "Our judgment is that training and supplying, direct or indirect,
takes place, and that there is also provision of financial resources to
people, to militias, and that there is a presence of people associated
with [Iran's] Revolutionary Guard and with the MOIS," he said, using
the initials for Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
Khalilzad spent much of last week busily delivering letters from
President Bush -- letters, no doubt, that he wrote himself, and
persuaded the less-than-knowledge-based President then to sign -- to
various Iraqi political figures, in which Bush declared that the
American Empire no longer has any use for Jaafari's services as prime
minister. (Delivered to Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the guiding power behind
Iraq's Shiite religious party, the letter was officiously left
unopened, and an aide to Sistani told reporters that the ayatollah was
most unhappy with U.S. "meddling" in Iraqi politics. As if occupying
the country with 130,000 troops isn't meddling.)
Humpty Dumpty in Baghdad
There are three points to make about the current American scramble to put Humpty Dumpty back together again in Baghdad.
First, it is by no means certain that the United States can force
the corrupt politicians of Iraq's various parties -- Shiite, Sunni and
Kurd -- to paper over their differences and announce the government of
national unity that Khalilzad wants. The full-court press by the
Americans is showing signs of having an effect, and Jaafari will
eventually probably accede to U.S. pressure and step down. But whoever
takes over, the government of Iraq will remain weak, divided, and
isolated inside Baghdad's well-fortified Green Zone. It is and, until
the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, will remain a collection of charlatans
and quislings, leavened with separatist warlords such as the Barzanis
and Talabanis of Kurdistan and Abdel Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme
Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
What still holds them all together and remains the only glue preventing
Iraq from splitting into three separate states, is the self-interested
greed of the warlords who have been installed by the American forces.
None of them want to kill the golden goose that allows them to cash in
on billions of dollars in Iraqi oil revenues and U.S. aid.
Increasingly, however, that glue is losing its adhesive power. Iraq is
succumbing to centrifugal pressures as more and more Iraqis identify
with sectarian and ethnic affiliations. Under these circumstances, it
is highly unlikely that even a new Iraqi government including Sunnis
could put a halt to the Iraqi civil war.
Second, the imperial treatment of Jaafari by the ambassador has
shocked and stunned Iraqis, opponents and supporters alike. His public
humiliation has been a blatant exercise of sheer American muscle, and
it happened on the front pages of Iraq's newspapers. It makes a mockery
of President Bush's alleged commitment to democracy. Paradoxically,
since Jaafari -- whose alliance with rebel cleric and warlord Muqtada
al-Sadr remains strong -- can now claim to have resisted American
pressure, it will ultimately strengthen his political standing, since
any Iraqi politician who opposes the United States becomes instantly
popular. By the same token, whoever might now accept the job of prime
minister, as Jaafari's replacement, will take office under the shadow
of the U.S. occupation that installed him, giving that new leader zero
credibility. Power in Iraq comes not from acquiescing to American
might, but from resisting it.
Third, there is virtually no one in the ranks of the Shiite
religious bloc who is any better than Jaafari. The leading replacement
candidate from the Shiite alliance is Adel Abdel Mahdi, a chieftain of
SCIRI with close ties to Iran's intelligence service, who is an
apologist for the Shiite militias and their death squads. During a
recent visit to Washington, when I asked him about reports of Shiite
killings, he justified death-squad activities as merely a response to
killings by Sunni "terrorists." He has also repeatedly demanded that
Iraq's Shiite-led police units be unleashed against the Sunnis, and of
course the very center of the Shiite death-squad operations is the
Interior Ministry, led by a SCIRI colleague. For reasons that are
unclear, the United States seems to support Abdel Mahdi over Jaafari,
perhaps because SCIRI is seen as an opponent of Sadr's Mahdi Army.
Rather hilariously, the New York Times
reports that Bush administration officials prefer to overlook Abdel
Mahdi's many years in Iran and instead view him as a "Western-educated
proponent of free market economics."
In fact, the United States is now facing two robust insurgencies
in Iraq: a Sunni-led resistance of Baathists and army veterans and a
growing Shiite-led, Iranian-linked resistance. The former is not
weakening, blowing up and shooting down Americans at a steady pace,
with 13 U.S. troops killed in the first three days of April. The
latter, however, is potentially more deadly, because it has the ability
to mobilize so many among the country's 60% percent Shiite majority,
and because it has the support of Iran. Parts of the Shiite majority
have already gravitated into outright resistance to the American
occupation, including Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.
By its assault in late March on a fortified building in Baghdad held by
Muqtada's forces, in what may or may not have been a mosque, the United
States formally launched its fight against the incipient second
insurgency, the Shiite one. If things spin further out of control, as
it's likely they will, U.S. forces may soon find themselves fighting a
Sunni insurgency to the north and west of Baghdad and an urban Shiite
paramilitary army in the south.
That, however, rather oversimplifies the contours of the spreading
civil war in Iraq. To understand what Iraq will look like, recall the
civil war in Lebanon from 1975-1990, a brutal struggle that left
perhaps 200,000 people dead in a far smaller country. That war dragged
on for fifteen years, during which Lebanon's many-sided political
culture constantly realigned itself like a reshaken kaleidoscope.
The main parties to that conflict were several Christian blocs, several
factions of Palestinians, Shiite militias, Sunni armies, and the Druze
mountain men. Alliances among them constantly shifted. Israel and Syria
invaded Lebanon -- twice each -- and left residual forces there. The
Lebanese capital, Beirut, was split down the middle, and its suburbs
and nearby cities were turned into war zones, ethnically cleansed and
fortified. Horrific massacres occurred, and political assassinations
and car bombs were routine. Through it all, Lebanon maintained the
fiction that it had a central government, held elections, and even
regularly staffed embassies abroad. On the ground, however, power was
with the various militias, and the toll in human life was crushing. The
Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, and Palestinians each maintained
their own armed enclaves, battling over the carcass of Beirut.
That is precisely what the civil war in Iraq is beginning to look
like today. Baghdad, like Beirut, is fast being transformed into a
carcass to be fought over (as are cities like Kirkuk and Mosul). The
Kurdish north, the Shiite south, and the Sunni triangle are becoming
fortified hinterlands for the struggle to control Baghdad, Mosul, and
Kirkuk. Iraq has become a Mad Max world in which angry youths wheel
around in jeeps and pickups, don ragtag militia uniforms, and set up
checkpoints and roadblocks guns drawn. The Shiite forces eye each other
suspiciously and enviously, and their rivalries may yet turn to open
warfare and violence. The two big Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK,
despise each other, and in the past have warred each against the other.
The Sunnis too are thoroughly divided. Any of these factions might ally
with just about any of the others, then break that alliance only to
ally for a period with a former enemy and attack the former ally. There
are no rules, only guns. Is it possible to imagine the U.S. armed
forces in the midst of this chaos? No.
The chaos of the present moment will certainly get worse, new Iraqi government or not. Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times
reports that gun sales in Iraq are booming, with proliferating weapons
bazaars that sell "machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade
launchers." He adds: "Militia ranks are swelling, too, with growing
swarms of young, religious, mostly uneducated young men taking to the
streets with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders."
The Sunnis, in particular, are fast building private armies to compete
with the 20,000-strong Shiite Badr Brigade, the Mahdi Army, and other
Shiite militias, as well as with the Kurdish pesh merga. The Los Angeles Times
reports that Sunnis are "stashing guns in their mosques and knitting
themselves into militias of their own." It quotes a young Sunni
militant: "One little signal and you'll see us all in the streets." Day
after day, scores of Iraqis -- mostly Sunni victims of Shiite gangs --
turn up bound and gagged, with electric drill holes in their bones, and
bullets in their brains. They are found in mass graves, in vans stuffed
with bodies, in ditches. Tens of thousands of Iraqis are fleeing cities
and neighborhoods in which they are a minority or feel unsafe, becoming
refugees in their own land.
It is precisely this phenomenon that marks the formal start of civil
war in Iraq, and it can be traced back to the late summer of 2005, when
a steady stream of Sunni murder victims began to turn up in hospital
morgues around the country. Since last fall, according to reports from
human rights observers, hundreds of dead Sunnis have been piling up in
mortuaries each month. In the past month, according to various Iraqi
officials, more than 1,700 Sunnis have been kidnapped, tortured, and
executed, and fifty or so new bodies are turning up on a typical day.
Since last fall, the number of those killed by Shiite death squads has
surpassed those killed by the Baathist-led resistance and by the
terrorists linked to Al Qaeda's suicide bombers -- as good a marker as
any with which to pinpoint the moment when Iraq passed from one stage
of political existences to another: Iraq has now gone from a country
with a shaky, U.S.-backed regime fighting a resistance movement to a
country in which sectarian killings and ethnic cleansing predominates.
Defeat or a Widening War -- or Both?
Rational observers can only conclude that the U.S. occupation army in
Iraq has no place in the midst of a civil war. But for the Bush
administration, withdrawal is not an option. But in the midst of such
an escalating mess, how could Bush withdraw? The Bush administration is
like the proverbial kid with a hand stuck in the cookie jar, grabbing a
fistful of goodies. In order to get out of Iraq, Bush would have to let
go of Iraq's goodies. In this case, that means letting go of Iraq's
oil, and letting go of the dream that Iraq can become the anchor for a
long-term U.S. military and economic presence in the Persian Gulf. To
do so would mean a humiliating public admission of defeat -- defeat for
the idea of Americanizing Iraq, defeat for America's hope of
establishing hegemony in the Gulf, and defeat for the neoconservatives'
determination to use military "shock and awe" tactics to intimidate
potential regional rivals and opponents around the world. All of that
would be gone -- and in the most public way possible.
Which brings us to former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht, currently
a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. In
2002-2003, Gerecht was among the loudest proponents of giving the Arabs
the old shock-and-awe treatment, arguing that Iraqis, Arabs, and Middle
Easterners in general only understand the language of force. Writing in
the Wall Street Journal
on April 3, Gerecht warned bluntly that for the United States to
succeed in Iraq might require far more bloody-minded tactics than have
been utilized thus far. First, Gerecht notes with satisfaction that
many Sunnis have been frightened and intimidated by Shiite militias,
adding: "Sunni and Kurdish fear of Shiite power ů is politically
overdue and healthy for all concerned." And then he gets to the heart
of the matter:
"The Bush administration would be wise not to postpone
any longer what it should have already undertaken -- securing Baghdad.
ů Pacifying Baghdad will be politically convulsive and provide horrific
film footage and skyrocketing body counts. But Iraq cannot heal itself
so long as Baghdad remains a deadly place."
Does Gerecht's proposal foreshadow a new effort, a last push, by
neoconservatives to urge the administration to "win" the war in Iraq by
overwhelming force, by sending yet more U.S. forces to engage in yet
more fruitless shock-and-awe fantasies? Do Khalilzad's recent
get-tough-on-Iran remarks foreshadow a neoconservative effort to expand
the losing war in Iraq into Iran itself, while casting blame on Iran
for the U.S. failure to secure or pacify Iraq? Can the United States
persist in Iraq fighting not one, but two growing resistance movements?
Or is it time to cut our losses? Time to cut and run?
Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.
He covers national security for Rolling Stone and writes frequently for
The American Prospect, Mother Jones, and the Nation. He is also a
regular contributor to TomPaine.com, the Huffington Post, and other
sites, and writes the blog, The Dreyfuss Report at his web site.
Copyright 2006 Robert Dreyfuss