It Could Be Worse…

One point Kevin Drum has taken to making recently is that we shouldn’t complacently accept the idea that things are so terrible in Iraq right now that they currently really get worse and therefore we can afford to just keep drifting around, hoping things will miraculously improve and leaving the opportunity to cut our losses in the future. How could things get worse? Well, give Bing West a read. “When I spoked with Chiarelli, he was insistent that the armed Shiite militia must be dealt with,” he writes, “Prime Minister Maliki protests that he must take a political course to resolve the matter, especially with the radical Moktada Sadr and his Mahdi army. But the issue of Sadr is going to come to a head. Our military is not going to back off.”

But with more advisers to provide confidence and to approve key positions, the army—Shiite and Sunni—may hold the country together. General John P. Abizaid, who has commanded the Central Command throughout the insurgency, has assured the Congress that Prime Minister Maliki will move against the Shiite militias by February, and will emerge as a real leader, backing his army. Currently, the army has more allegiance to their advisers than to their government. The advisers are the ones who drive to Baghdad and wrest pay and food provisions from recalcitrant government ministries.

So where are we headed? Down two tracks: the one is the development under American advisers of the Iraqi security forces; the other is the emergence of a responsible Iraqi government. It may be that Abizaid is correct that Maliki is on the verge of a character-altering epiphany. But if Maliki is incapable of moving against the militias or offering reasonable terms for reconciliation, President Bush will face the choice of sticking with a failed democracy the U.S. created, or tolerating a behind-the-scenes power play by a fed-up Iraqi military.

West, demonstrating a rather blinkered perspective, thinks this is all to the good. The no-goodnik Maliki will be sidelined by a behind-the-scenes power play coup, and the awesome New Iraqi Army with its awesome American embeds and backed by the might of the American military will take care of business. I am, shall we say, less optimistic that that replacing Maliki is going to accomplish anything. But his point about divergent perspectives and the possibility of a coup is a sound one. After all, there’s something intrinsically odd about the idea of trying to bolster a fragile democracy by building incredibly effective domestic security forces. Historically, such forces are the main risk to democracy. Of course, in light of the insurgency a heavy emphasis on the domestic security service is understandable. But the combination of that focus with persistent policy disputes implies that a coup is likely.

And what of our general political position in Iraq then? Well, we’d have completely descended into playing a neo-colonial role with no fig leaf whatsoever. And we’d be fighting armed Shiite and Sunni groups simultaneously, along with a very thin layer of allies in the Iraqi Army. It would be, I think, a recipe for even more total disaster than what we have now. And this is what the elements of the US Army who haven’t given up are hoping will happen.