Archive for May, 2008

Talking to Your Adversaries, 2008 Style

Posted in Diplomacy, Getting out of Iraq, Iran, Iraq and Election with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2008 by whatafteriraq

One of the great false issues of the 2008 election campaign has been the question of whether the United States should engage in face-to-face discussions with its adversaries. The issue arose, of course, because Barak Obama suggested he might be willing to meet with the Iranian leadership, a position which evoked gasps of disengenuous horror from John McCain and Hillary Clinton. Is it wise to talk to those with whom you disagree?

The conventional wisdom is that of course it is. Most of the time when countries talk to one another, it is about matters on which they disagree, not on their points of agreement, which scarcely need talking about. That is and always has been the norm of diplomacy. But things have changed during eight years of George W. Bush’s incumbency. Bush has a well known and documented aversion to talking to anyone who disagrees with him, and if the “disagreer” has views fundamentally different from those of the “decider,” the result is an utter lack of interaction.  

Obama’s disagreement with this position is being trumpeted as something radical, and it is not. As Obama himself put it on May 28, 2008, “I think it is an example of how stunted our foreign policy debates have become over the past eight years that this (talking to adversaries) is an issue. It is actually a pretty conventional view of how diplomacy should work traditionally that has fallen into disrepute in Republican circles and in Washington.”

He is, of course, absolutely right. U.S. presidents have talked to our adversaries throughout American history without their doing so being considered strange, but have the metrics changed? Would critics now condemn Eisenhower for starting summit diplomacy or Nixon for opening relations with China if those events were to transpire today? It is, after all, the purpose of negotiating with adversaries to narrow differences and to resolve policy inconsistencies through diplomacy rather than shooting at one another. Is that so hard to understand?

There are two major places where the faux debate is centerig. One is Iran. What, McCain asks as if he did not already know the answer, do we have to talk to Iran about? Well, the obvious answer is Iraq. As pointed out in earlierpostings here, there can be no stable outcome in Iraq that Iran has not bought off on, because Iran has such strong connections to all Shiite elements in the country. Their initial help in Afghanistan suggests they can be helpful if they ewant to be; calling them nasty names and refusing to talk to them certainly does not enhance the prospects. One does not have to invite Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to tea in order to have a dialogue with the largets and most powerful Islamic state in the region, and one that is adjacent to Iraq.

The other issue is Israel and Palestine. Jimmy Carter has created a firestorm in the United States by suggesting the American approach to dealing with peace there would be better served by trying to reestablish a more even-handed approach to the two sides, rather than swooning over Israel and shunning the Palestinians, which the United States continues to do. For example, President Bush went to Israel to celebrate the May 14, 2008 60th anniverdary of the founding of Israel. May 15, however, is Nakba Day to the Palestinins, the day of the “catastrophe” of their uprooting. No one in the American government made note of that.  Can we wonder why the Palestinians do not really trust us to represent their side of the dispute fairly?

That the United States should surmount the petulance and immaturity of the Bush view of diplomacy and begin a dialogue with those we dislike is too obvious for serious discussion. The question, Senator McCain, is not whether we should talk to our adversaries, it is what we should talk about.


Memorial Day, 2008: Shooting Orwell’s Elephant

Posted in Current Events in Iraq, Getting out of Iraq, Iraq War, Leaving Iraq, US Occupatio with tags , , , , on May 26, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Memorial Day always evokes a sense of irony when the country is involved in war: we honor those who have fallen by leaving others at the same risk. The irony is particularly thick when there is substantial disagreement about whether the risks that are being incurred as we celebrate are worth it.

General David Petraeus and Lt. General Raymond Odierno were in Washington this past week going through the motions of their promotions to commander of CENTCOM and commanding general of American forces in Iraq. Petreaus in particular suggested that things are really going better in Iraq than they have and that he believed that troop reductions would be possible this year. He and Odierno did not specify how many troops could be mustered out or when, nor did they invoke any Vietnam-style “light at the end of the tunnel.” But things are, they assert, improving. Improving from what and to what?

The futility of an occupation that is five years old and counting drew me back to one of twentieth century’s harshest opponents of military occupations (as part of imperialism), George Orwell. Born Eric Blair, Orwell grew up in the British Raj and became a member of the colonial police in Burma during the 1920s. In 1934, he published his scathing critique of colonial practice, Burmese Days. In 1936, he followed that work up with an essay/short story, “Shooting an Elephant.” (  Its thesis remains a useful reminder of the narcissistic folly of military occupation.

The story line of “Shooting an Elephant” is simple and familiar. Summoned by reports of a rogue elephant in a Burmese neighborhood, a British colonial policeman (presumably Orwell/Blair) responds and is entreated to shoot the elephant, who has broken loose and has terrorized the town. By the time Orwell catches up to it, the animal is peacefully eating grass in a soggy field. The policeman understands he should not shoot the elephant, because it is valuable and poses no threat. He also realizes the townspeople who have followed him on his pursuit of the beast expect him to kill it. Ultimately, he complies, and the elephant dies.

Rereading the essay, two observations stood out. One was about the erosive effects of being an occupier. “When the white man turns tyrant,” Orwell wrote, “it is his own freedom that he destroys.” One can hardly avoid allusions to the restrictions on civil liberties that Iraq has spawned. The other observation struck me with particular vigor on Memorial Day: “I had done it,” Orwell said of shooting the elephant, “solely to avoid looking the fool.”

Since it is certainly not clear what Iraqi progress means or whether a continued American presence is contributing positively toward improvement however defined, is it possible that Petraeus and Odierno, and the rest of us, are marching forward in Iraq “solely to avoid looking the fool”? Or is it better to admit shooting the elephant is a bad idea and act on that insight? If we did, there might be a few less fallen to honor next Memorial Day. 

Iraq’s Wider Refugee Problem

Posted in Getting out of Iraq, Leaving Iraq, Morality of War with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2008 by whatafteriraq

The Council on Foreign Relations ( posted an article today (May 22, 2008) reminding us all that the Iraq War has created a far larger refugee problem than that associated with collaborators with the American occupation reported in Monday’s entry in this space (“America’s Iraqi Quisling Problem”). The article was written by Greg Bruno and is titled “A Long Road for Iraqi Refugees.” It is yet another depressing reminder of how badly the United States has served Iraq and its people in this war.

According to the article, there are currently over five million Iraqi refugees (about one-fifth of the total population) in either internal or external exile. Those in external exile are located in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, all countries with abundant problems of their own who do not need the added pressures of an indigent exile population. Iraqis who have collaborated with the United States and fled retribution by their fellow countrymen are part of this mass, but they are by no means all of it. Although the story concentrates on the paucity of international support for the refugees rather than their composition, most of them are Sunnis who fear retribution from the Shiite majority whose power is being implicitly supported by the American insistence on democratic governance (one man, one vote) in Iraq.

Given the deep rifts within Iraqi society, a large refugee outpouring was a predictable outcome of an effort to redo the Iraqi polity but, one more time, it appears to be a problem the Bush administration either did not anticipate or has chosen to ignore. Bruno, for instance, quotes Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Trudy Rubin on their response. “On the subject of Iraqi refugees,” she writes, “there is a deafening silence from the White House.”

In a sense, the American presence in Iraq has just traded one refugee problem for another. Under Sunni-dominated Baathist rule (Saddam Hussein), Shiites were regularly suppressed, and their leaders sought refuge wherever they could find it. Most went east to Iran to be with their co-religionists, just as Sunnis have fled to Sunni-dominated countries. There are, however, two differences worth noting. One is the sheer volume of refugees this time. I do not know the size of the Shiite refugee population under Hussein (does anyone out there?), but it was smaller. Second, the Sunni exodus also represents both a brain drain and loss of financial resources, since Sunnis occupied a disporportionate place in the upper reaches of Iraqi society and particularly were overrepresented in the professional classes. Their exodus is not entirely unlike the flight of the Palestinians after 1948 out of Palestine into bordering countries.

There is essentially no short-term positive prognosis for the refugee problem. Akin to the problem of those who assisted the American occupation, Uncle Sam does not appear forthcoming with either sizable financial or other assistance. If the refugees go home, they face the wrath of a Shiite government supported by the United States. If they try to stay where they are, the United States will be of limited assistance, particularly with the Syrians, with whom the United States refuses to talk at high levels of intergovernmental interchange. Presumably, the hope is that the problem will remain below the public radar until the administration leaves office (thereby kicking the can down the road to its successor). As well, the administration may be trying to help Senator McCain by not bringing attention to an embarassing aspect of a continuing presence in Iraq.

In the meantime, displaced Iraqis suffer, and no one seems to care much. But then, the war was supposed to have been over almost five years ago and, as I recall, the word “refugees” never appeared in the pre-war scenarios. 

America’s Iraqi Quisling Problem

Posted in Getting out of Iraq, Iraq and Vietnam, Leaving Iraq, Morality of War with tags , , , , , , on May 19, 2008 by whatafteriraq

Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945) was a Norwegian politician and former military officer who collaborated with Nazi Germany in its plans to occupy Norway in World War II and who, as a reward for his “service,” was made head of the puppet Norwegian government during part of the Nazi occupation of that country. At the end of the war, he was tried and executed by the Norwegian government for treason. His name became a synonym for collaborator and traitor. To be a quisling is to be someone who gives aid and comfort to an occupying enemy and to be deemed a traitor who deserves a horrible fate among his or her countrymen.

Every war that involves an invasion, conquest, and subsequent occupation of a country creates its collaborators with the occupiers. Collaborationists are necessary for an occupation when the occupying power does not know much about the country it occupies or how it works, and especially when there is a shortage of people among the occupiers who speak the local language. The United States’ occupation of Iraq qualifies as needy for all those reasons, and as a result, the Americans have recruited and hired literally thousands of Iraqis to aid in their administration of the occupation.

Those employees look like classic quislings to much of the Iraqi population that opposes the occupation. Even if the Iraqi who serves as a translator in a U.S. Green Zone office did not collaborate in facilitating the invasion, he or she is aiding the occupation and is, by virtue of that action, a traitor. When the United States leaves Iraq, those quislings left behind face a very grim, and probably short future.

The Iraqis who have served the United States understand this problem, and their fate was described in a “60 Minutes” segment that aired on May 18, 2008. Those who remain in Iraq working for the Americans hide their identity and particularly their occupations for fear of being killed if their true lives are exposed. Many others (over a million) have fled to Jordan and Syria, where they live in the most tentative exile. They are, for instance, not allowed to work, because the local labor markets cannot absorb them; as a result, they exist on whatever savings they may have brought with them. When that runs out, they are set adrift. They cannot return to Iraq for fear of being killed. Most want to come to the United States, but the U.S. government refuses to admit most of them (only a trickle of those who have applied have been allowed to enter the country).

This creates a very real moral quisling problem for the United States. It happened before in Vietnam.When the United States evacuated that country, thousands of Vietnamese tried to flee with their American “benefactors” (remember the scenes of Vietnamese being literally kicked off the struts of American helicopters evacuating the U.S. Embassy in Saigon). All the major candidates for the presidency in 2008 have said the U.S. must do better by our Iraqi allies than we did by our Vietnamese allies. But we aren’t. Why not?

The U.S. government is, of course, the Bush administration for this purpose, an it has set the policies the State Department is enforcing on Iraqi immigrants seeking entrance in to the United States. Officials of the administration presumably have ordered (or at least encouraged) the ponderous processing of Iraqi immigration requests. Partly, the reason must be that admitting a lot of Iraqis who fear returning home is an admission that the U.S. mission of creating an idyllic, moderate democracy has failed, which the administration refuses to do. Partly as well (and ironically), the U.S. government no doubt fears that some of those applying are really terrorists (whom the action in Iraq was supposed to help eliminate): in this case, the problem is that we do not really trust those whom we recruited to help do our dirty work. Partly, it probably also reflects the nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment surrounding the illegal immigrant question.

Regardless of why it is happening, the result is a national disgrace. Iraq may have a quisling problem, but the United States created it by imposing the occupation, and if the United States retains a shard of honor toward those it befriends, it will take care of those quislings it has created. The Nazis lost and were in no position to save Vidkun Quisling. What is our excuse? 

Sadr City: A Parable?

Posted in Getting out of Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Leaving Iraq with tags , , , , , on May 15, 2008 by whatafteriraq

The cessation of organized fighting between Muktada al-Sadr’s Shiite Mahdi army and the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army over the largely Shiite Baghdad suburb of Sadr City that began over the weekend seems to be holding, with one exception, according to press reports. Given the ravages that have befallen that area of Iraq shown in recent televised media reports, the absence of major violent news from Sadr City is news in itself.

But there may be more to it than that. The conditions that have allowed the suspension of inter-Shiite fighting in Sadr City may have deeper signiicance for the future of Iraq and may even offer a parable of sorts for the question of American withdrawal from Iraq.

Spokesmaen for al-Sadr have stated their condition for ceasing their campaign to control Sadr City (which, not coincidentally, has been the launching point for artillery–mortar and rocket–attacks on the Green Zone in Baghdad, headquarters for the American presence). Their condition, very simply, is that the Mahdi army will restrain its forces in Sadr City if order there is enforced by Iraqi government forces, but not if the Americans do the patrolling, since the American presence is a symbol of the occupation they oppose.

Despite this pronouncement, there is still some residual fighting in Sadr City, but it centers around the wall being built by the American to partition the suburb into two parts, including a free and secure zone in the part of the city from which the attacks on the Green Zone are launched. Since the wall is another reminder of the occupation, opposing that is consistent with al-Sadr’s position on Sadr City per se.

Does this mean that the American military is the source of, rather than the solution to, Shiite-on-Shiite violence? Is it possible to extrapolate this example to what will transpire, at least within the Shiite community, when the United States packs its bags and leaves altogether? And would an American withdrawal have the same effect elsewhere? In Sunni areas, after all, support for Al Qaeda in Iraq seems to linked to anti-Americanism; remove the irritant, and the sore may heal.

The real question, of course, is whether the limited Sadr City example is a true parable for the broader future or a false analogy. Literally, of course, it is limite to the relations within one of the contending groups in the country and may have no predictive value for the deeper divisions between Shiites,Sunnis, and Kurds. Still, it is a refreshing alternative to dire predictions that the removal of American forces from Iraq will inexorably trigger a descent into uncontrollable chaos. 

Iranian Peacemakers in Iraq?

Posted in Getting out of Iraq, Internal Violence in Iraq, Iran and Iraq, Leaving Iraq, Uncategorized on May 11, 2008 by whatafteriraq

The Sunday New York Times (May 11, 2008) carried a story without much fanfare but with potentially significant importance to the American continuing presence in Iraq. Reported by Alice J. Rubin, it was titled “Sadrists and Iraqi Government Reach Truce Deal.”

The gist of the report was that a delegation of Iraqi parliamentarians dispatched to Tehran to pressure the Iranian government to stop supplying Iraqi militias with weapons used against Americans and Iraqis instead negotiated a deal with the Iranians to broker a truce in inter-Shiite fighting in Sadr City, a Shiite-dominated suburb of Baghdad, between Iraqi government forces and elements loyal to Muktada al-Sadr. The result was a ceasefire “brokered with the help from Iran” that has, at least temporarily, brought a stop to violence in one of the most troubling hot spots in Iraq. And it was all done without apparent American advice or assistance and even, indeed, in the face of American opposition to dealing with Iran in anything but a hostile manner.

How did the “Iran factor” work in this case? As noted in the most recent posting of this blog on May 5, Iran has been providing assistance to all major Shiite parties in Iraq, including the government and al-Sadr’s Mahdi army. The Iraqi and Mahdi armies have been the major contestants in the battle for control of Sadr City, meaning the Iranians have both an interest in and leverage over boh contending parties. In this case, they apparently sent word to al-Sadr (with whom they have a mixed relationship, since he is both a strict Shiite and an Arab nationalist) that he either negotiate a cease fire or they would cut off supplies to him. And it has worked, although no one is predicting how long it will hold. The Iranians have apparently accomplished a goal that has eluded the American occupiers.

What does this tell us? Maybe a lot, maybe very little. It certainly suggests that Tehran can, when it wants to, exercise influence over what happens in Iraq, in this case for the betterment of peace in that country. Their actions are undoubtedly self-interested in ways that will almost certainly be interpreted darkly by the Bush administration, but it is undeniable that they can be movers and shakers in determining what happens in Iraq. Does this mean the United States would be well advised to try to befriend (or at least start talking to) the Iranians and see if Tehran and Washington may have some common interests that can be pursued in the interest of Iraqi stability and American withdrawal? Maybe, maybe not, but the Iranians have demonstrated that they cannot be ignored altogether if the objective is to influence events in Iraq.

Leaving Iraq: The Iran Factor

Posted in Getting Into Iraq, Getting out of Iraq, Iran and Iraq, Leaving Iraq on May 6, 2008 by whatafteriraq

The most significant hinge on which the American ability to leave Iraq pivots is the state of conditions in that country after our departure. If the result is a descent into a maelstrom of highly visible violent chao, it will be widely seen as an American defeat and will almost certainlt trigger an acrimonious political debate in the U.S. Such a debate would undoubtedly include pillorying those who supported disengagement as unpatriotic and disrespectful of the memories who have fallen, and those accusations would be met with an eqaully srrident outcry that none of this would have happened had the United States not invaded unwisely in the first place. Then the fur flies. It would not be pretty.

This scenario is not played out if the American departure is accompanied by reasonable stability and tranquility that can plausibly be called peace (notice all the qualifying adjectives, the intepretation of which are subjective). It will not matter much whether the cause of peace is because of the U.S. presence (the good we have done) or the American departure (relief the occupation is over) . If the U.S. is “out of there” with reasonable cover, war supporters will feel triumphant, and opponents will be relieved. It is the closest possiIble thing to a win-win outcome.

How does one maximize the prospect of a successful outcome (a peaceful Iraq)? There are, to reiterate, no guarantees. Having said that, one possible way–certainly not the only one–is to avoid destabilizing outside influences. Enter Iran. If the Iranians approve of the outcome and support it, there is at last a chance it will work. If, on the other hand, they oppose the post-war agreement, they can (and may well) commit destabilizing interference that will endanger the peace. Iran is that important to the overall outcome.

Iranian interest in post-occupation Iraq is arguably greater than that of any other regional actor. Iran is the physically largest, most populous and powerful state in the region, and it shares a long land border with Iraq. It is the Persian Gulf region’s pivotal state, meaning its interests cannot be ignored because of its regional importance (the pivotal state concept is discussed in Chapter 4 of my forthcoming fourth edition of Cases in International Relations). Moreover, Iran is already heavily involved in Iraq, providing support for essentially all important Shiite factions, many of whose leaders have lived in exile in Iran at one time or another. Iraq is also important to Iran bcause the holiest shrines of shiism (after those in Saudi Arabia) are in Iraqi cities, notably an-Najaf and Karbala. For all these reasons, a post-occupation Iraq the Iranians cannot accept is likely not to be a very stable place. (One they do approve of also might not be very stable.)

If Iranian cooperation were perceived as important to an American government committed to a peaceful Iraq after the U.S. departs, it would stand to reason that the United States would be actively discussing mutually acceptable outcomes with the Iranians (presumably the Iraqis would also be present). Even if these must be held privately because of publicly expressed U.S. disdain over Iran, clearly getting on board should activate U.S. diplomacy.

The Bush administration, of course, is doing nothing of the sort, at least not as far as the public knows. Why not? The Bush administration does not like Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadenijad, and as is typically the case with Bush, he refuses to talk to someone he dislikes. Only Senator Obama has expressed any willingness to engage in conversations with the Iranian president. At the same time, such attention as there is toward Iran is directed is aimed at their nascent nuclear weapons program and what nasty things the United States will do a) if Iran acquires the weapons, and b) if threaten to or actually use them against Israel. The surrounding rhetoric may play well in Tel Aviv–for instance, “Hillary the Obliterator”, but it hardly resonates in Tehran.

Iranian nuclear weapons prospects are a future prospect that can be dealt with primarily by improving relations between Tehran and Washington (a major reason for the Iranian program is to deter American attacks against them); starting a dialogue over Iran might even help jumpstart that process. Iran’s interest in and acquiescence to a settlement of the Iraq War is here and now. Can the Iran factor be ignored as planning for an acceptable outcome in Iraq proceeds? The Bush administration acts as if Iran does not matter–implicily arguing they will have to accept whatever outcome the U.S. comes up with. Is that a viable assumption that can be translated into a workable strategy? Not if the Iranians have anything to say about it–and they do.