Robert Dreyfuss is an Alexandria, Va.-based writer specializing in politics and national security issues. He is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005), a contributing editor at The Nation and a writer for Mother Jones, The American Prospect and Rolling Stone. He can be reached through his website, www.robertdreyfuss.com.
President George W. Bush, who is being shadowed these days, and rather ominously, by a suddenly revived Vice President Cheney, confronts two hostile majorities opposed to his Iraq policy. The first is American, growing in power, that demands a U.S. withdrawal from the Iraqi quagmire. The second, also growing, is even more potent: It is the Iraqi majority that wants a quick end to the U.S. occupation of their country.
If, indeed, President Bush is determined to flout both of those majorities in pursuit of a phantasmagorical notion of “victory” in Iraq, then the future is grim beyond all measure. The latest news from Iraq—namely, that Bush and Ambassador Khalilzad are trying to micromanage the creation of yet another pro-American coalition government to replace the current regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—is a sign that the president is truly lost in a fantasy land. The president is making policy for an Iraq that exists only in his imagination, even as conditions in the real Iraq, the one here on this planet, deteriorate ever faster.
The first majority that Bush confronts, the American one, spoke loudly on November 7, when voters repudiated the war in Iraq by a large margin, electing Democrats and candidates opposed to the war. Since then, if anything, this majority has gained strength. According to the latest polls, only 21 percent of Americans support President Bush’s Iraq policy. Tsunami-like, that wave of public opinion is beginning to crest in Washington, emboldening Democrats and generating fear among Republicans who don’t want to be saddled with Bush’s war in 2008.
But it is the second majority, the one in Iraq, that will unravel Bush’s plans for that country much faster than Congress will.
Ignoring all sense, the president is trying to cobble together, brick by brick, an Iraqi government that is able and willing to do what Maliki’s regime can’t or won’t do: break the back of the Muqtada al-Sadr Mahdi Army and redouble the offensive against the Sunni-led Iraqi resistance. The whole thing is out in public view, and in the worst possible manner: first Bush met with Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the fanatical cleric who heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a militia-based religious party; then he met yesterday with Tariq al-Hashemi, the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Sunni religious party linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The two religious leaders, Hakim and Hashemi, are engaged in open plotting to create a new coalition to replace Maliki.
It’s a desperate gamble by Bush, as the clock runs out, to salvage the occupation of Iraq. Both Hakim and Hashemi are tired, worn-out figures, the preferred puppets who’ve been mainstays of every single Iraqi government—transitional, interim and otherwise—that has been installed by the United States since the March 2003 invasion. But a “new” Iraqi government, one made up of reshuffled, washed-and-dried puppets, won’t work this time either.
That’s because vast majorities of both Sunnis and Shiites want the United States to leave Iraq, period. So, any Iraqi government installed by the United States and created under U.S. pressure, and which endorses the continued presence of American troops in Iraq will have zero credibility. The fact that Bush is meeting with the conspirators so openly, amid widespread reports that Bush and Khalilzad are working overtime to assemble the new coalition, dooms it from the start. It’s precisely the mistake that Khalilzad made earlier this year, when he pressured Iraqis to dump former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and install the hapless Maliki in his place. That made Maliki look exactly like what he was: a hand-picked hand puppet. Now it will be worse, in spades.
In the middle of all this maneuvering, during a week in which President Bush has tried to portray himself as consulting with State Department and Pentagon officials, “outside experts,” U.S. military leaders in the field, Khalilzad, and even the hated realists of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, the president flummoxed his own staff and press aides. First he said that he’d reveal all about his “new” Iraqi policy before Christmas—and then suddenly announced that instead he’d wait until 2007 to tell us what it is. It was a Keystone Cops performance that made him look even more foolish than usual.
But it does leave us all guessing as to the central question: Will he, or won’t he, walk through the door that was opened for him by the Baker-Hamilton report? Issued just last week, that report—you will recall—suggested that it was time to pull all U.S. combat forces out of Iraq by early 2008 and to launch a major regional diplomatic effort to help stabilize Iraq politically. So far, Bush has pooh-poohed the report, but he hasn’t rejected it outright. So, despite the fact that Dick Cheney is still whispering into his ear sweet nothings about the scores of virgins who will greet Bush if he stays the course, there is at least an outside chance that the White House will embrace the spirit, if not the letter, of the Baker-Hamilton ISG.
More likely, though, as evidenced by his all-too-public rearranging of the deck chairs on the sinking S.S. Maliki, Bush is committed to the creation of yet another Government of U.S. Victory in Iraq. That would be a government that provokes a showdown with rebel cleric Sadr (indeed, U.S. military officials told The New York Times that a “military assault on Sadr strongholds may be inevitable”).
Another possibility is that Bush could give permission for the long-rumored coup d’etat against Maliki that would install a military strongman in his place. (One of the outside experts who met with Bush in the Oval Office on Monday was prominent neocon Eliot Cohen, who is on record calling for a military coup in Iraq as a viable option.) For the first time, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi declared yesterday, “I think martial law is required,” causing the London Telegraph to say that Allawi’s “comments will be interpreted in some quarters as an attempt to place himself as the strongman who could save Iraq.”
To his credit, Allawi said, “Iraq needs to move away from sectarianism, from extremism and to really lay down the groundwork to move into a more reconciliatory society, a united society.” In fact, most Iraqis would probably welcome an authoritarian leader, but—from which sect? That’s the problem now. The chances that a military takeover might stabilize Iraq are small. It is too late, even for that.
Because the government of puppets won’t hold, the only really viable government in Iraq must be built around the one theme that a majority of both Sunnis and Shiites support—namely, the withdrawal of U.S. forces. One scenario to achieve this is for a new Hakim-Hashemi government simply to ask the United States to leave Iraq, perhaps in six months when, many Iraqi leaders say, their own army and police will be ready to take over. (They won’t be ready, but no matter.) An alternate scenario—more ugly from the standpoint of the Bush administration—is for Sadr, militant Sunnis, and anti-SCIRI Shiites to form a broad-based anti-U.S. occupation bloc and take power, ordering an immediate U.S. pullout. Unless President Bush is truly Machiavellian, the likelihood of the former is nearly zero. And although, at this moment, a coalition between Sadr and the Sunni-led resistance in Iraq is unlikely, things are moving fast. What seems impossible today could take the United States by surprise tomorrow. As Sadr said on Sunday, in a fiery speech demanding that the United States withdraw its troops: “Yesterday’s friends are today's enemies, and yesterday's enemies are today's friends.”
And remember: the much-maligned Baker-Hamilton report not only called for the United States to open talks with Iran and Syria about the war in Iraq, but also said that the United States "must also try to talk directly to Muqtada al-Sadr, to militia leaders, and to insurgent leaders”—i.e., talk to precisely the forces that the Bush administration wants to fight.