Archive for April, 2008

Shiites Unite! There Is a Common Enemy

Posted in Getting out of Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Leaving Iraq with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2008 by whatafteriraq

An entry in this space on April 18 suggested that Shiites in Iraq are divided politically and militarily and that one of the major pospects of the post-occupation situation there may be Shiite-on-Shiite violence. In a statement covered in the U.S. press on April 26, however, Maqtada al-Sadr has straightened out any misunderstanding about the nature of relations between his movement’s Mahdi Army and the Iraqi Army under the titular command of Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki.

Al-Sadr’s basic message is that Shiites have nothing to fight about. What they have, instead, is a common enemy at which both (or all) groups should be concentrating their attention. And guess who that is? The United States, of course. In al-Sadr’s own words, “If we have threatened an open war until liberation, we meant a war against the ocupier,” he says (emphasis added). To the government, he exhorts, “I call upon my brothers in the police, army and Mahdi Army to stop the bloodshed” among them. “We should be one hand in achieving justice, security and in supporting the resistance in all of its forms. This is a war between us and the occupier, so do not interfere in favor of the occupier.”

That sounds petty clear, and the message has been received by the troops. As one of his militia commanders is quoted by the Associated ress as saying, “Al-Sadr has made it clear that the open war is directed against the Americans. We will continue to fight the Americans and if the Iraqi soldiers attack us, we will fight back.”

This is not exactly the way proponents of “staying the course” in Iraq are portraying the ongoing American role. If al-Sadr is to be believed (admittedly a big “if”), withdrawing the Americans would seem to remove the major impediment to inter-Shiite relations. Of course, Sunnis and Kurds probably prefer a splintered rather than united Shiite front, but can one have it all ways?

“Should I stay or should I go?” a popular song entreats in an entirely different context. Muqtada al-Sadr and David Petraeus seem to have two different ideas. Who’s right? 


The Leadership Shuffle: Four More Years?

Posted in Getting out of Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraq and Election, Leaving Iraq, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2008 by whatafteriraq

The April 24, 2008 announcement of a change of leadership within U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) came at a curious time, both politically and militarily. Politically, the nomination of General David Petraeus as the new CENTCOM commander came hard on the heels of his bruising encounters with the Congress earlier in the month that revealed significant differences of opinion about the war between the general and leading Democrats, notably presidential contenders Obama and Clinton. Militarily, it came equally hard on the heels of inter-Shiite fighting around Basra, reported in an earlier entry. What’s going on here?

The bare bones are clear. Admiral William Fallon, who allowed himself to be rransferred from command of the Pacific Command (PACCOM) in 2007 to head CENTCOM, was pushed out the door about a year into his three-year tour, apparently because the “Fox” (his fighter-pilot nickname) came at odds with the White House over Iran (he, quite reasonably, opposed ratcheting up the rhetoric, since we could not back up threats); the Bush administration, of course, is famous for its intolerance of internal dissent. Push came to shove, and Fallon will be gone. That is certainly a shame.

With Fallon heading out the door, reenter Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Ray Ordieno. The paint was hardly dry on his door plate in the Pentagon as Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, and he is on his way back to Baghdad to replace his former boss as commander of U.S. (officialy coalition) forces in Iraq. The mantle of overall military coordination of U.S. military coordination in the Middle East now passes to Petraeus.

Two questions arise. The first is why the change at this point, six months before the November election. Fallon’s recognition he had displeased the powers that be must have entered in here, but presumably he could have been convinced to stay through the election–possibly with a sock stuffed down his throat to prevent further heterodoxy on his part. Since the CENTCOM leadership position is traditionally a three-year posting, Petraeus, assuming he is confirmed, will be in place for the first two-and-a-half years of a new administration. Since he is a known supporter of the present course, he thus serves as a source of continuity or as a millstone for the next president, depending on who it is and what he/she wants to do about Iraq. The effect is to lock in a powerful source of inertial drag against quick disengagement, that much is for sure.

The second question is why Petraeus agreed to this timing. There are three possibilities. He may have done so because he is a “good soldier” who, when his commander calls, salutes briskly and marches on in the Army tradition. He may have done so because he is convinced that the current course is the proper one and that his elevation will make it harder to change away from the right policy which, from his new position, from which he will be  better able to direct that course. Or, it may all be political, with Petraeus and McCain (who has, hyperbolically, called Petraeus “one of the greatest generals in American history”). Or, of course, it could have been all of the above. Could the general, his strong denials notwithstanding, be looking at 2012?

The confirmation process for Petraeus and Ordieno, likely in the early summer, will be ugly. Democrats are in a dilemma: do they oppose what most Americans believe is a genuine war hero? Or do they support him and thus indirectly support a continuation of a war to which they are opposed. It is a lose-lose proposition, the prospect of which must warm the cockles of Karl Rove’s heart. Doubtless Obama and Clinton (and other Democrats) will grill Petraeus on his willingness to support an altered policy, but will that be too subtle if they vote for confirmation in the end?

This whole episode smells familiarly like another ploy to ensure that American disengagement from Iraq is as difficult as possible. As such, it is another refrain of the same theme raised in the most recent posting. Do we really want four more years in Iraq? If not, what do we think about Petraeus and Ordieno allowing themselves to be willing pawns in the political drama of ending or continuing the war? 

Four More Years in the Middle East?

Posted in Getting out of Iraq, Iraq and Election with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Senator and presumptive GOP presidential candidate John McCain’s recent trip to the Middle East was, among other things, a prolonged photo opportunity to demonstrate his standing as a foreign policy and national security expert, the latter a keystone of his claim on the country’s highest office. It may, however, also have been a preview of what President McCain’s policy toward the Middle East might be. Depending on how one views that policy’s success over the last seven years, the result was either fairly encouraging or alarming.

The trip began, predictably, in Iraq, where McCain sounded his familiar themes of support for the “success” of the surge and the need to stay the course in that country. Included in this emphasis was what is becoming the standard refrain regarding his championing of an Ira policy the majority of Americans reject: “I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war,” as he puts it. It is either a classic face-saving device or an attempt to demonstrate that McCain is above the “low politics” of presidential campaigning and pandering to public opinion on the war. The reader can decide which.

There were, however, two other aspects of the visit that may offer an insight into McCain’s approach to the Middle East that suggests he is in fundamental agreement with the policies of the Bush administration.

The first was his well publicized gaffe about the connection between Iran and Al Qaeda, where he accused Shiite Iran of providing “well known” training, refuge, and support for Sunni fundamentalist Al Qaeda. He corrected this remark after accompanying Senator Joe Lieberman whispered in his ear that Iran and Al Qaeda are in fact enemies, but that is not the point (although the mistake itself is so egregious as to raise questions about his command of the subject). The point is that this assertion came in the middle of a virtual diatribe against Iran as essentially the cause of most of the region’s ills and as a force to be opposed as a clear adversary. One could almost hear his intemperate attempt at humor earlier on the campaign trail, singing “Bomb, bomb, bomb, Bomb, bomb Iran” to the melody of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann.” So much for engaging Iran in any Middle East—including Iraqi—peace process under President McCain.

McCain then moved on the Mediterranean Middle East to add his imprimatur to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. He began with a profession of undying support for the Israelis (including donning a yarmulke earlier in the presidential campaign than any candidate in recent memory) that would have brought tears of joy to the most diehard neoconservative. He did not bother to meet with Mohammad Abbas, the leader of the Palestinians, at all, limiting himself to a telephone courtesy call. So much for any chance of serving as an honest broker in trying to move the Israelis and Palestinians toward some form of accord in their intractable conflict.

The tone and effect of these events is decidedly neoconservative. Retired Admiral Bobby Ray Inman told the Los Angeles Times on March 16, 2008 that “there’s going to be a lot of disappointment on the neoconservative side” over McCain’s policies, but that was certainly not evident in his most recent foray into the region. During Easter Week, 2008, John McCain sounded and acted like a classic neocon, a sobriquet at which McCain would bristle.

One way to figure out why McCain took the position he did was to look at those who are advising him, but that does not help much. Certainly, he has his share of neoconservatives in the ranks, including people like Randy Scheunemann and Gary Schmitt of the Project for a New American Century (discussed in What After Iraq?), Eliot Cohen, R. James Woolsey, John Lehman, and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. These advisors are counterbalanced by classic realists like Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, Barry McCaffrey, Robert Zoellick, Henry Kissinger, and Richard Armitage, as well as more eclectic figures like Andrew Krepinevich, Ralph Peters, Max Boot, and Robert Kagan. It is not clear which group or individuals had the candidate’s ear at this moment in time. It would appear the neocons won.

If the snapshots gathered in candidate McCain’s most recent trip mean anything, a McCain presidency in the Middle East would look a lot like his predecessor’s: an obdurate commitment to continuing the Iraq War, opposing Iran to the point of excluding it from participating in diplomatic efforts in the Persian Gulf, and a smothering embrace of Israel that guarantees the Palestinians and their Muslim supporters will not take any peace initiatives in the Mediterranean Middle East seriously.

Four more years in the Middle East? Is that what we all want?

Also check out:

“The War over Wonks.” Washington Post, October 2, 2007; Cameron W. Barr and Michael D. Shear
“A McCain Gaffe in Jordan.” Washington Post, March 19, 2008
“McCain Has Long, Diverse List of Advisors.” Arizona Republic, August 11, 2006

Moral Hazard in Iraq?

Posted in Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraq and Election, Iraq and Troop Levels, Morality of War with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2008 by whatafteriraq

One domestic and one foreign policy issue have dominated public concern for the last week or so. The domestic issue is the mortgage crisis created by the issuance of so-called sub-prime loans—generally large loans to people financially unqualified for and unable to meet the long-term requirements of those loans—on housing. The policy question is what to do about the ensuing rush of home foreclosures that threatens lending institutions and homeowners about to be dispossessed. The foreign policy issue is the renewed outbreak of sectarian violence in Iraq, which threatens to upset the fragile tranquility contributed to the surge of American troops in the country.

Do these two events have anything in common? On the surface, they do not, but it may be possible to create a conceptual link between them. That link is the notion of moral hazard.

The concept of moral hazard is normally associated with economics, and refers, in a general way, to the problem of what to do when economic institutions act foolishly or imprudently in ways that threatens the economic well-being of themselves and others, such as investors. The problem is what to do when this occurs, and one common way to dissipate the effect of these bad economic decisions is in the form of some kind of bailout that reimburses those who have lost as a result of unwise actions. The rationale for subsidy is to avoid both grievous losses to innocent victims (investors who did not know what was being done, for instance) and the economy more generally. The moral hazard arises because the act of subsidizing those who have committed errors in effect rewards them for their bad behavior and sends a message that reckless behavior not only may not be punished in the future, but may be rewarded. Does one send that message, or let the economy and individuals suffer? That is the dilemma that faced the political system at the time of the saving and loan (S&L) crisis of the middle 1980s, at the time of the Asian financial crisis of 1998, and again today.

The same logic can be applied to reacting to the upsurge in inter-Iraqi violence this past week. The fighting has unglued one fundamental part of the reduced violence equation that has underpinned claims the surge is “succeeding” in reducing violence. The three argued pillars of reduced violence have been the introduction of additional American forces (the surge), the defection of Sunnis from support to opposition to Al Qaeda in Iraq (thereby allying them with the Americans—at least for the time being), and the ceasefire by the Mahdi Army of Sheikh Muktada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr’s forces have broken their part of the arrangement, engaging in battle with Iraqi armed forces (which are, to many observers, simply extensions of other Shiite factions in the country).

What is the United States to do? The first reaction has been support for the so-called “pause” in reductions of American forces as force numbers are returned to pre-surge levels. While the advertised idea is to see what happens after a modest troop reduction in terms of violence, the effect is also to provide something of a buffer against more inter- and intra-communal violence by keeping as many Americans as possible in a position to suppress that violence.

But does that approach not amount to another form of moral hazard? For Iraqis, the effect of more Americans staying is to suppress levels of violence by putting the screws to the warring factions. But is this not rewarding the Iraqis for their bad behavior? If it is, that is the essence of moral hazard.

Why would the U.S. gravitate toward this form of moral hazard? For the same reason that the U.S. government will end up pumping money into the housing market to protect imprudent borrowers and predatory lenders from their bad behavior: it is politically more acceptable to commit the ethereal, hypothetical sin of moral hazard than to kick people out of their homes or to take punitive actions that may deepen the recession. Similarly, the “pause” may reward bad Iraqi behavior, but it also avoids an imminent collapse of the surge-argued peace and allows proponents—whether they are outgoing presidents who do not want the legacy of having “lost” Iraq or aspiring presidential candidates wedded to the cause—to avoid embarrassing consequences.

Is moral hazard in war any more palatable than it is in peace?

Iraqi Oil: Blessing or Curse?

Posted in Getting out of Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Leaving Iraq with tags , , , on April 19, 2008 by whatafteriraq

The disposition of Iraq’s oil reserves, among the largest and most coveted in the world, has been the unspoken agenda item in the debate over why the United States conquered Iraq and is a key element in a post-occupation Iraq? As discussed in What After Iraq?, Iraqioil is plentiful, it is cheap (at $1.00-1.50 barrel) to extract, and it is some of the “sweetest” (low sulphur content) oil in the world. Everyone wants it? Who will get it? And will Iraq benefit greatly from its exploitation?

The United States clearly Iraqi oil, although it rarely admits that oil had anything with invading Iraq, a questionable position. American oil companies, and Iraqi “entrepreneurs” like Achmed Chalabi, have been active in  trying to gain American access to oil rights after the war is over, and they are not alone in this desire. Whether a new Iraqi government will grant concessions to American oil companies (a questionable prospect, since, according to a recent Mother Jones article be Joshua Kurlantzick, only about 10 percent is now controlled this way) is a matter of policy concern for the United States. Setting aside the American motive to control Iraqi energy and turn a profit, the stated reason is that oil revenues will help stabilize Iraq.  But is hat true? Is oil a blessing or a curse?

In the ramp-up to the war, the Bush administration painted a rosy picture of the role oil would play. When asked how the United States would pay for the post-war rehabilitation of Iraq, it was explained that Iraqi oil revenues would provide the cash, thereby obviating the need for American investment (this was part of the fanciful projection that the entire war would cost the American taxpayer no more than $50 billion). Oops!

The real crux of the matter is the role oil will play in post-occupation Iraq . The optimistic answer is that it will provide revenue that can be distributed and thus help underpin Iraqi prosperity and stability: oil as a blessing. But is that really the likely outcome?

Two recent articles cast doubt on this proposition. Both take New York Times correspondent Thomas L. Friedman’s critique of the oil rich, yet corrupt “petrolist” states as a benchmark. Using states like Venezuela and Russia as “models,” Friedman argues that oil revenue corrupts, and to paraphrase Edmund Burke, absolute oil dependency corrupts absolutely.

Michael L. Ross lays the case out starkly in the May/June 2008 edition of Foreign Affairs. In “Blood Barrels, he states that “oil wealth often wreaks havoc on a country’s economy and politics, makes it easier for insurgents to fund their rebellions, and aggravates ethnic grievances.” Sound like Iraq? Ross argues this havoc triggers “conflict in tghree ways. First, it can cause economic instability. Second, oil wealth often helps support insurgencies. Third, oil wealth encourages separatism.” How do you spell “Kurdistan?” Kurlantzick adds that “many oil -richcountries have become increasingly authoritarian and corrupt.” Iraq, of course, already ranks among the world’s most corrupt regimes on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Is oil a curse?

No one is projecting that the road to Iraqi freedom will be other than a bumpy one, regardless of when the United States disengages. But almost everyone assumes, at least implicitly, that oil will lubricate that transition and make it easier. Should we rethink that assumption.


Kurlantzick, Joshua. “Put a Tyrant in Your Tank.” Mother Jones 33, 3 (May/June 2008), 38-42, 88-89. (

Ross, Michael L. “Blood Barrels: Why Oil Wealth Fuels Conflict.” Foreign Affairs 87, 3 (May/June 2008), 2-8. 

Shiites Versus Shiites and the Presidential Election

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Getting out of Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iraq and Election, Morality of War with tags , , , , , on April 18, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Fighting between Shiite elements in Iraq—the Iraqi army loyal to the al-Maliki government and dissident members of the Mahdi army loyal to Muktada al-Sadr—adds another complication both to popular conceptualizations of what is evolving in that country and to the contentious debate over the effects of American withdrawal from Iraq. Because whether or when to withdraw is the most visible foreign policy in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Shiites fighting Shiites resonates in the American political debate as well.

What exactly happened in Iraq last week? Without going into details not widely available, the ceasefire between al-Sadr and the government which has been one of the three pillars of the downturn in violence in Iraq recently (mentioned earlier in this blog space, “Moral Hazard in Iraq?”) broke down. Al-Sadr, from his exile in Iran, apparently ordered his followers (the Mahdi army) into the streets of Basra and later Baghdad to force the al-Maliki government to accede to certain demands regarding suppression and incarceration of some of his followers. Al-Maliki responded by unleashing the Iraqi army on the Mahdi army, and the result was a week of street fighting, with the United States supporting the government forces. It ended on March 31, 2008 with the declaration of another ceasefire by al-Sadr. On the ground, neither side convincingly won (itself a setback for the government, as al-Maliki had vowed to push the Basra campaign to a military victory over the Mahdi army).

What does all this mean? At one level, it demonstrates that Iraq is internally still a very unstable place and that the sources of instability run deeper and are more complex than the simple Shiite vs. Sunni vs. Kurd vs. Al Qaeda depictions with which all have become familiar. In case anyone had missed it previously, the fighting revealed that the Shiite majority in Iraq is not a monolith, but is instead a faction rife with contending sub-factions willing to use violence to achieve their ends. If the political tapestry of Iraq were not already complicated enough, this simply showed how Byzantine the whole landscape is.

What does this mean to the United States, and especially the prospects of American withdrawal? The response of the American political campaigns to these events is revealing, if almost entirely predictable.

The McCain campaign, as discussed in a March 31, 2008 New York Times article by Michael Cooper and Larry Richter (“Iraq Offensive Revives Debate for Campaigns”), reacted by arguing that the incident was both encouraging and cautionary. It was encouraging because, McCain said, the government’s response “is a sign of strength” of the government. On the other hand, McCain’s senior foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, argues the incident 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 they could fight or shoot their way to power.” He concludes with the debatable rhetorical question, “Would you rather have the Maliki government in control, or the Iranian-backed groups in control, or Al Qaeda in control?” This set of options is debatable—to say the least—because the Iranians have support among and have backed essentially all the Shiite movements in Iraq, and because no one seriously thinks Al Qaeda in Iraq will be a serious player in the struggle for post-American occupation Iraq.

The Obama and Clinton campaigns, predictably enough, see the whole incident as additional evidence of why withdrawal is the right policy. For Obama, it demonstrated that the presence—including the continuing presence—of American troops does not change the underlying calculus of power in Iraq. That presence, he says, “has not resolved the underlying tensions that exist in Iraq.” The Clinton campaign agrees. Lee Feinstein, her national security director, concludes from the outbreak that “the only way to get the Iraqis to accept responsibility for their future is by no longer extending them an indefinite blank check.”

Does this incident, or response to it, clarify anything about what to do in Iraq? Not really, because no matter what lessons one derives about Shiite versus Shiite violence in March 2008 for the future, it requires extrapolating into a future that cannot be entirely known. Projections are thus easy to make when there are no facts against which to measure them. As former State Department official Aaron Miller puts it in the NYT article, “It’s very much a question of what the ending is and whether it is clear cut.” Since hardly anything in Iraq is ever clear cut, that leaves plenty of room for speculation.

Where Do the Angels Reside 3: The Morality of Getting Out of Iraq

Posted in Getting out of Iraq, Iraq War, Leaving Iraq, Morality of War with tags , , , , on April 16, 2008 by whatafteriraq

The most difficult, yet consequential, moral question to ask about Iraq is the moral dimension of leaving that country. Within the presidential debate surrounding Iraq war policy, the major point of disagreement is often stated implicitly in moral terms: is it right (moral) to exit the country soon? or is it better to remain in the country and to ease its transition to some better condition? The bottom line of any moral argument has to be: what U.S. action serves the greater betterment of the Iraqis?

This is not only the most consequential question, it is also the most difficult to answer, for two reasons. The first is that the conditions that need betterment in Iraq are largely our fault. Granted that some Iraqis suffered under Saddam Hussein, most of the current suffering is the direct result of the American invasion and is suffering that would not have occurred had we not invaded and occupied the country. Under Saddam Hussein, for instance, there was electricity and it was safe to walk the streets at night. The moral question is thus burdened with the recognition that whatever the United States does in the future is partly to repair suffering we have caused. It is hard to argue this does not create some moral imperative behind future American action. Colin Powell was right: we did break Iraq, and the question now is whether it would be immoral not to try to fix what we have broken.

The second difficulty is that it is impossible to know for certain which course of action–leaving or staying–will alleviate the suffering we have created. John McCain says it would be immoral not to stay and ease the burden; Senators Obama and Clinton argue that only the Iraqis themselves can solve their problems and that the sooner the U.S. departs, the sooner the process will begin (and that the process will be accelerated by the U.S. departure). One of these assessments is closer to correct than the other one. Unfortunately, there is no way to know definitively which is more correct in advance of the action.

The morally correct solution to Iraq thus boils down to what assessment will best relieve Iraqi suffering. Providing a better life for Iraqis and their country was the implicit moral basis for invading and has been the moral rationale for occupying the country. As noted in the previous entries, both these arguments in application are arguably flawed, a judgment that can be made because they have produced outcomes that can be judged: the invasion was a good or bad idea, and the occupation has been successful or has been botched. Each has moral implications that can be judged on the record.

The moral basis for judgment surrounding when and how to leave is easy to define: what action will provide a better life for Iraq. The problem is there is no record on which to assess what is the “right” course of action. What makes the moral problem all the knottier is that the wrong decision–one that leaves Iraqis worse off–will be hard to reverse. If staying produces bad results, time is lost. If leaving is wrong (and is irreversible in that the U.S. will almost certainly not return once it has left), then the result cannot be changed. One course is right and moral in its effects, and the other is not. The problem is: which is which?