July 26, 2006
Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005). Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. He can be reached through his website: www.robertdreyfuss.com.
The address by Iraq’s puppet prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday was a surreal and other-worldly exercise in the make-believe.
As civil war rages in Iraq, swamping even its capital in an orgy of violence, Maliki strolled into the House chamber, led by an "escort committee" of House and Senate members that resembled pall-bearers more than an honor guard. As they waited for Maliki to enter the room, the assembled dignitaries seemed shrouded in a funereal silence. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert clumsily mispronounced his name, introducing Maliki as "Malocky." But when he finally started to speak, it was malarkey.
For members in the hall, the elephant in the room was Iraq’s civil war and the fact that 127,000 U.S. troops are caught in the middle of it. In fact, that civil war threatens to unleash a political civil war at home, as Americans increasingly fail to see a light at the end of the dark Iraqi tunnel. More and more, Democrats (with crucial exceptions) are starting to speak out, demanding answers from the Bush administration. So far, there are none forthcoming.
Maliki’s message was a simple one, and he delivered while standing in front of his puppet master, the scowling Dick Cheney. Did Maliki headline the sectarian bloodletting and ethnic cleansing in Iraq, the death squads and militias? No. Did Maliki present a plan for securing Iraq’s capital? No. Instead, he stuck to the Republican Party’s 2006 electoral talking points: that Iraq is the central front in the so-called Global War on Terrorism. He cited 9/11, a crime perpetrated by what he called "impostors of Islam," and he portrayed the violence in Iraq as the direct continuation of America’s effort against Al Qaeda:
Iraq is the front line of this struggle. … Iraq is your ally in the War on Terror. … The greatest threat Iraq faces is terror created by extremists. Iraq is free and the terrorists cannot stand this. … This terrorist front is a threat to every civilized country. Iraq is the battle that will determine the war. … I will not allow Iraq to become a launching pad for Al Qaeda. .. Iraq will be the graveyard for terrorism and terrorists."
Of course, all of this is nonsense. The war in Iraq is a full-fledged civil war, pitting the Sunni community against the Shiites, with the Kurds busily plotting their breakaway state in the north and the seizure of Kirkuk and Iraq’s northern oil fields. Al Qaeda, if it is involved at all, is a peripheral force. But by emphasizing Iraq as the center of the GWOT, Maliki was parroting the Republican Party line and daring Democrats to say otherwise.
Many Democrats, happily, were having none of it. "President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary Rumsfeld continue to deny that Iraq is in a civil war," said Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. Added Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., commenting on Maliki’s flailing plan to deploy more U.S. and Iraqi troops to Baghdad: "This is a stunning sign that the administration still isn’t being candid about Iraq’s escalating civil war." Even Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, says: "There is a civil war in Iraq." Following Maliki’s remarks, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois asked the right question: "We want to know [when] American troops will come home," adding that what’s happening in Iraq "if not a civil war, is very close to it."
Partially obscured by Israel’s rampage in Lebanon, which has grabbed the headlines, the war in Iraq grinds on. Durbin highlighted the fact that since the start of the Lebanon war, Israel has lost 22 soldiers, while over the same period the United States has lost 24 killed in Iraq. It’s too early to say to what extent the Democrats intend to draw a bright line between themselves and the Republicans over the war, but according to a well-connected Democrat, the party is coalescing around the need to embrace some hybrid of the get-out-now position—supported by Kerry, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, and others—and the let’s-start-thinking-about-getting-out view put forward by Reid and Carl Levin of Michigan. Standing in the way is Joe Lieberman, who may become an also-ran as of August 8, and, of course, Hillary Clinton. It’s fair to say that if America remains in Iraq through January 2009, it will be the fault of Hillary and Bill ("Re-Elect Joe") Clinton.
The fact is, getting out of Iraq is a winning position, despite efforts by the GOP and Maliki to link the war to the struggle against Al Qaeda. Even Republicans, especially those in swing districts in the Northeast and the Midwest, are getting the message. Last week, Rep. Gil Gutknecht, a six-term Republican congressman from Minnesota, put it bluntly: "What the White House is saying is, 'Stay the course, stay the course.’ I don’t think that course is politically sustainable."
One highly placed political insider told me: "There are people in the [Republican] party, on the Hill and in the White House, who see a political train wreck coming." If the Democrats win back one or both houses of Congress in November, he said, that would unleash a series of investigative hearings on Iraq, the war on terrorism, and civil liberties that could fatally weaken the administration and remove the last props of political support for the war. And that prospect has moved many moderate GOPers, such as Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, and Jim Gerlach and Charles Dent of Pennsylvania to question the Bush administration’s stay-the-course idiocy.
During Maliki’s dead-man-walking performance on the Hill, the applause was lackluster. Members seemed distracted and unenthusiastic, and Cheney looked downright glum. Some Democrats, such as Reid, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, and House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, tried to make a big deal of Maliki’s refusal to condemn Hezbollah, going so far as to suggest that Maliki’s invitation to speak to Congress be repudiated. (In the end, Reid and Pelosi relented, dutifully joining the pall-bearers who carried Maliki into the House chamber.) But in fact, these Democrats have a point: Maliki’s regime, despite being installed by the Pentagon’s puppeteers, maintains close ties to Iran, further complicating the ability of the United States to halt the civil war and disarm Iranian-backed Shiite death squads.
Meanwhile, no one seriously believes that the latest plan to secure Baghdad will work. The New York Times devilishly pointed out that while Maliki calls it "Phase II" of the plan announced six weeks ago, in fact there was never meant to be a Phase II; instead, it is Plan B. But even this is more wish that plan.
"God willing," said Maliki, "there will be no civil war in Iraq." Unfortunately, God has other plans for Iraq.