Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Iraqi Politics: Promise and Peril

On Sunday, AP Military writer Robert Burns commented on the state of the Iraqi military, and the encouraging as well as the concerning aspects of its increasing autonomy:

[Iraqi general, Wajih] Hameed's swagger sometimes grates on American officers. But Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond sees it as a hopeful sign the Iraqi army — generals and soldiers alike — has reached a new level of self-confidence, pointing the way toward truly independent Iraqi forces and, eventually, an exit for U.S. combat troops.

The flip side is that the Americans feel their control slipping away. This feeds a worry that Iraqi security forces either will set themselves up for a catastrophic failure or might even decide — at some point when the Americans largely have departed — that the country would be better off under military rule.

For now, the new assertiveness by generals such as Hameed, who commands all Iraqi soldiers in the western part of the capital, is welcomed.

I've found Burns' writing on Iraq to be generally better than average. His words of caution tend to be relatively on point, and markedly more moderate than that of many of his MSM peers, while his willingness to recognize progress where he sees it (even when it is, to say the least, unfashionable to do so) earn his words a serious look.

However, I was rather taken aback by his repeated intimations that the growing functionality and competence of the Iraqi military might somehow be a harbinger of a potential military coup in the making. This seems puzzlingly overheated to me, though it does appear to reflect the ambivalence which he notes among US military officers about the growing autonomy of the Iraqi military...the very autonomy for which we have been training it. I can't help but feel that this worry is a product of a wider uncertainty about our evolving role in the region: that is, away from a "Realist" reification of stability at all costs, and toward a deliberate (though selective) destabilization for the sake of promoting the emergence of institutions more conducive to interoperability with the globalized governments and economies of the West. The advantages of this in terms of de-legitimizing extremism and [re]kindling the potential dynamism of populations grown dangerously acculturated to generations of tyranny are obvious. The dangers, however, are just as evident. Once we have empowered a society to take the reins of its own destiny, as the Iraqis are showing growing signs of approaching readiness to do, then we have little choice but to step back, watch nervously as the beast bucks and lurches against those reins, and hope that the forces of order and lawfulness are not thrown from its back.

It's a Realist's nightmare.

However, while I can understand (and to a fair extent share) Burns' concern, I think he is giving unjustly short shrift to the Maliki government's encouraging moves toward consolidation and legitimacy for its claim to the trust of the Iraqi people.

Maliki's willingness to do battle with Iranian-backed Shiite militias as well as Sunni insurgents and terrorists, along with passage of legislation to reverse key de-Baathification measures have been enough for an important Sunni bloc to signal its willingness to rejoin the government, setting the stage for a more justly representative composition of that government, and allaying the fears of Iraq's Sunnis that the predominantly Shiite government would undertake mass vengeance for the Saddam-era oppression of Shiite Iraqis. The significance of these moves have also not been lost on neighboring Arab states, who have made some very encouraging gestures of confidence in the Iraqi government's ability to mind the store at home, and to hold fast against Iran. Indeed, the degree to which the Iraqi government has been able to accelerate the pace at which it has been meeting the political benchmarks set by the US Congress last year appears to have made more of an impression on Iraq's citizens and neighbors than it has on certain members of that Congress (and at least one Presidential contender) who have been unable to muster the intellectual honesty to acknowledge them without craven equivocation.

As for the relatively tough negotiations by Maliki and his ministers with respect to the Status of Forces agreement with the US after the UN mandate expires at the end of December, this may be more tea than tempest. If the Iraqi government is to further cement its legitimacy at home and in the region, it must make perfectly clear that it is not a mere puppet of Washington. Some may denigrate this as mere kabuki, but I think it is something far more salutary: politics. With provincial elections coming up, Maliki (and his party) needs to signal that all this talk of Iraqi sovereignty is not just for show, and that he is firmly in control of his constituents' interests. He knows as well as anyone that a premature withdrawal of American forces would very likely be an unmitigated disaster, but he also knows that he governs a proud people who will brook no poodles at the helm. Max Boot lays this out quite clearly, and offers these words of caution [emphasis added]:

The danger is that rhetoric intended for domestic political consumption in Iraq will warp our own political discussion by providing fodder for those who, like Obama, are now citing the success of U.S. forces, as they once cited their failure, as evidence that we can pull out safely. The reality is that while limited troop withdrawals are now possible without compromising the gains of the surge, going too far too fast can still throw our growing success into doubt.

It is an interesting point that, just as many worry that the exaggerated rhetoric of the American elections could have the effect of emboldening our enemies (and frightening our allies) abroad, so the bluster of Iraqi politicians jockeying for position in their nation might inadvertently [mis]guide the policy propositions of American politicians. The fact that the internal dynamics of Iraqi politics has taken on such an influential stature beyond its borders is strangely encouraging, and speaks to Burns' fears that the growing efficiency of the Iraqi military will prompt it to seize control from the civilian leadership. No such thing appears to be in the offing at this time, and much would have to go horribly wrong for that bogey to appear on the radar. This is not to say that it could not happen (this is Iraq, after all; it eats predictions for breakfast). But, with all due respect to Burns' reporting and analysis, publicly worrying that particular bone seems premature at best.

As a final note, via Hot Air, the much-vaunted (by "anti-war" figures at various levels) pronouncement by Maliki that he is seeking a timetable for American forces' withdrawal from the theater appears to have been a product of a simple mistranslation (and do note the source here; the BBC can hardly be accused of being a propaganda arm of the USGOV!). Pay close attention in the coming weeks to how slowly that particular meme is allowed to decay in the public conversation about the emerging Status of Forces Agreement. Traduttori, traditori, indeed!

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