August 9, 2006

Ignorance and Short-Sightedness Coming Home to Roost

In June, there were signs of hope that the United States might be able to close a deal among the various competing factions in Iraq to at least avoid the now-burgeoning civil war, if not fully realize a unified, democratic nation. The Sunnis had apparently bought into the political process, and there was speculation that the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was brokered by Sunni leadership, as evidenced by the announced completion of the Iraqi cabinet on the day of his death, and the declared intention of the United States to begin drawing down troops.

So what went wrong?

As StratFor described in their excellent analysis "Break Point: What Went Wrong," (subscription required, or enter site as a guest through Google, after searching on the title), the answer lies with the Shia, on whom the U.S. was depending as the majority population in Iraq to be the foundation of any new society. Instead of reciprocity for Sunni movement toward unification however, the Shia community factionalized and ratcheted up its sectarian slaughter. The Sunnis, after waiting a bit to see if things would cool down, soon realized they had no choice but to respond and did so in kind. The Shia leadership with whom the United States has been talking either no longer has control of the militias as it once did, or is choosing not to exercise it.

The Shias have apparently looked at their options and decided that they would be better off gaining total control of an area in the south that would at best be loosely federalized into a greater Iraq (if not completely autonomous) than they would be with partial control and co-government of the entirety of Iraq alongside the Sunnis and the Kurds. This idea is one that the Kurds in the north appear more than happy to follow, as they have been practicing self government for over a decade, and have actually begun efforts to market tourism in “Iraqi Kurdistan.”

None of this is new, however; the concept of an autonomous Shi’ite southern region was originally floated over a year ago. What, then, is behind this elevated sense of pure self-interest? The answer again lies with the Shia, but this time with those in Iran and Lebanon rather than in Iraq. As StratFor put forth in another recent analysis, "Iraq: Shi'ite Worries in the Wake of Lebanon" (subscription required, or enter site as a guest through Google, after searching on the title):

What has happened is that the Iraqi Shia are looking with great concern at the developing dynamic in the Hezbollah-Israeli confrontation. They see the Lebanese crisis in terms of a Shi’ite-Sunni struggle in which the Arab states and Washington have joined hands against Iran and its Lebanese Shi’ite ally. The Iraqi Shia fear this could have implications within Iraq, under a scenario in which the Iraqi Sunnis would exploit the situation to their advantage by aligning more closely with the United States.

This brings us to Israel's current invasion, spurred by the kidnapping of two of its soldiers by Hezbollah militants based in Southern Lebanon. Although there had been occasional flare-ups since Israel’s withdrawal from its last incursion into Lebanon in 1982, the border between the two countries remained relatively peaceful. With a weak army, the Lebanese government effectively ceded much of the southern part of the country to Hezbollah, which gained support among the local populace by providing quasi-governmental services and a general sense of order.

Syria, meanwhile, which had tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon, kept a relatively firm hand on Hezbollah. As a poor country, it was very much interested in maintaining the steady stream of income it siphoned from Lebanon, and had no desire to provoke the Israelis into another invasion. That controlling influence disappeared however, when Syria was pressured into withdrawing its forces during 2005's Cedar Revolution by the Lebanese populace, the United States and the international community, after it was blamed for the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the newly elected prime minister. (Despite some legitimate question about the evidence to support such a contention.)

All of this brings into stark relief the fact that the Bush Administration does not have any kind of unified policy toward the Middle East. It has acted in a wholly tactical manner since its single half-baked attempt at strategic deployment into Iraq began that country's descent into chaos, and ignorance of the interplay between the region’s peoples has led to short-sighted and often foolish courses of action. Iraq never should have been invaded without an ironclad plan for the occupation; relations with Iran should never have been poisoned with talk of an “Axis of Evil;” the Syrians should never have been pushed out in a manner that left a power vacuum in Lebanon; and Israel should never have been allowed to continue hammering on the Palestinians - who serve as a kind of unifying cause celebre among the various religions, ethnicities and factions in that part of the world - without meaningful comment or action on the part of the United States. Foresight and reality-based planning remain sorely lacking among President Bush’s core team, and the administration’s insensitivity and crass posturing are only making things worse.

As Michael Scheuer, the former CIA operative who headed up efforts to capture Osama bin Laden writes in his book "Imperial Hubris":

As I complete this book, U.S., British, and other coalition forces are trying to govern apparently ungovernable postwar states in Afghanistan and Iraq, while simultaneously fighting growing Islamist insurgencies in each – a state of affairs our leaders call victory. In conducting these activities, and the conventional military campaigns preceding them, U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s. As a result, I think it fair to conclude that the United States of America remains bin Laden's only indispensable ally.

Changing course based on plentiful evidence of failure is not flip-flopping or cowardly or defeatist; it is both the smart and the right thing to do. As amply demonstrated in yesterday's disclosure of an alleged plot to down international flights using liquid explosives, the main threat to the United States and our allies remains non-state actors like al-Qaeda. Wasting equipment, money and most importantly, lives in Iraq shifts our focus from where it should be, makes us less safe, and reduces our ability to respond to new threats.

The first step in getting on course is to replace the tin ears that have been conducting American foreign policy and replace them with more effective individuals. Fresh faces with actual experience, knowledge and records of success are required. The American people may be stuck with George W. Bush for the next two-plus years, but that doesn’t meant that Dick Cheney can’t be removed from policy decisions and Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice summarily fired.

It’s time to stop fiddling while the Middle East burns down around our ears.

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