John McCain did a little more damage to his foreign policy credibility yesterday. After hailing the Basra offensive last Friday as “a sign of the strength of [Maliki's] government,” yesterday McCain distanced himself from the Iraqi leader, expressing surprise that Maliki had chosen to lead the offensive, and claiming that “Maliki decided to take on this operation without consulting the Americans.”
I think he felt – which many of us had talked about many times—that Basra was an important part of the country, it was not under the control of the government, we all know that varying mafia-like factions, Shiite militias, control different parts of it [...] The police are corrupt. So he decided he wanted to address the issue. And whether he should have or not, I think we will see what the ultimate results are. But it certainly shows a degree of independence.
As many observers have pointed out, rather than being aimed at “varying mafia-like factions,” Maliki’s offensive was aimed at one particular faction: Jaysh al-Mahdi of Muqtada al-Sadr, whose political movement Maliki and his allies sought to weaken in advance of elections. Military analyst Malcolm Nance reports that “most Shiites in Southern Iraq…see this as a fight between two rival militias, the Badr Corps (aka Maliki and the Iraqi army) and the JAM [Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi militia].” Anthony Cordesman stated that “the current fighting is as much a power struggle for control of the south, and the Shi’ite parts of Baghdad and the rest of the country, as an effort to establish central government authority and legitimate rule.”
Asked if Maliki’s Basra campaign had “backfired,” McCain replied, “Apparently it was Sadr who asked for the ceasefire, declared a ceasefire. It wasn’t Maliki. Very rarely do I see the winning side declare a ceasefire. So we’ll see.”
Actually, it was apparently members of Maliki’s own government who traveled to Iran and requested the cease-fire, to which Sadr agreed. Maliki’s government then issued a statement praising Sadr, after Maliki insisted less than a week ago that there would be “no negotiation.”
Eugene Robinson suggested that the explosion of violence shows that “the tranquility brought about by Bush’s ballyhooed “surge” turned out to be as evanescent as a rainbow.”
McCain’s foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann saw it a different way, claiming that “this demonstrates…that there are very powerful forces that still remain that do not want to see the success of the central government and that would relish the prospect of the American withdrawal so that they could try to fight or shoot their way into power.” Scheunemann then asked, “Would you rather have the Maliki government in control, or the Iranian-backed special groups in control, or Al Qaeda in control?”
Despite Scheunemann’s fear-mongering, no credible Middle East analyst has ever suggested that Al Qaeda would ever be “in control” of Iraq. Given how uninformed John McCain is on Iraq, it’s no surprise that his advisers are too.