Monthly Archives: January 2007

Karbala: Bush’s Casus Belli?

Posted by Cutler on January 31, 2007
Iran, Iraq, Right Zionists / No Comments

The Bush administration seems to be escalating its campaign against Iran and may have already found its justification for military engagement.

Start with a January 20, 2006 attack on US forces in the Shiite city of Karbala in southern Iraq.

At the time, Helena Cobban at Just World News emphasized the significance of the attack and feared that the US would try to bury the story:

It seems the US authorities were not eager for the US public (or anyone else) to know the details of the lethally effective raid mounted against US occupation forces in Karbala last Saturday…

[A]ll in all, for the Bushites, it’s an extremely inopportune time for detailed news about an attack like the one in Karbala to get out and be disseminated to a wide US readership.

And yet, they proved unable to suppress the news.

Fear not.  The “Bushites” are now more than eager to disseminate the news.

According to  CNN and an article in the New York Times, the Pentagon is investigating the possibility that Iranians–in cahoots with “rogue” elements of the Mahdi Army–were involved in the Karbala attack.  James Glanz and Mark Mazzetti of the Times reports:

Investigators say they believe that attackers who used American-style uniforms and weapons to infiltrate a secure compound and kill five American soldiers in Karbala on Jan. 20 may have been trained and financed by Iranian agents, according to American and Iraqi officials knowledgeable about the inquiry…

Tying Iran to the deadly attack could be helpful to the Bush administration, which has been engaged in an escalating war of words with Iran…

An Iraqi knowledgeable about the investigation said four suspects had been detained and questioned…

The suspects have also told investigators that “a religious group in Najaf” was involved in the operation, the Iraqi said, in a clear reference to the Mahdi Army, the militia controlled by the breakaway Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr. If that information holds up, it would dovetail with assertions by several Iraqi officials that Iran is financing and training a small number of splinter groups from the Mahdi Army to carry out special operations and assassinations.

“I hear that there are a number of commando and assassination squads that are disconnected and controlled directly by Iran,” the senior Iraqi official said, citing information directly from the prime minister’s office. “They have supplied JAM and others with significant weaponry and training,” he said using shorthand for the group, from its name in Arabic, Jaish al Mahdi.

I don’t mean to be overly skeptical about reporting by James Glanz, although I agree with Juan Cole that his recent report on Iranian influence in Iraq seemed “a little breathless.”

In the report on Iran and the Karbala attack, Glanz and Mazzetti include a seemingly skeptical reference to the ways in which allegations of a link between Iran and the Karbala compound attack could be “helpful” to an administration accustomed to the self-serving public amplification of faulty intelligence.  (Maybe the sober influence of Mazzetti?)

But the article then makes what seems like quite a leap to suggest that mention by suspects of “a religious group in Najaf” was a clear reference to the Mahdi Army.   Note well: there are no “scare quotes” around the phrase clear reference.  This is presented in the authoritative voice of the reporter.  Is this supposed to be “clear” to Glanz and Mazzetti?  Clear to the Bush administration?  Clear to everyone?  Gosh, when I think of religious groups in Najaf my mind wanders over to a whole panoply of groups that appear to be active there.  Juan Cole took a look at religious groups in Najaf and threw up his hands, asking “Who knows?”  I guess James Glanz knows.

In any event, the Karbala-Iran link also provides some useful context for another piece of the “Iran campaign” story.  On Saturday, January 27, 2007 the Washington Post published a report by Dafna Linzer alleging that the Bush administration had authorized the U.S. military to kill or capture Iranian operatives inside Iraq.

The new “kill or capture” program was authorized by President Bush in a meeting of his most senior advisers last fall, along with other measures meant to curtail Iranian influence from Kabul to Beirut…

In Iraq, U.S. troops now have the authority to target any member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, as well as officers of its intelligence services believed to be working with Iraqi militias. The policy does not extend to Iranian civilians or diplomats. Though U.S. forces are not known to have used lethal force against any Iranian to date, Bush administration officials have been urging top military commanders to exercise the authority.

The wide-ranging plan has several influential skeptics in the intelligence community, at the State Department and at the Defense Department who said that they worry it could push the growing conflict between Tehran and Washington into the center of a chaotic Iraq war…

Advocates of the new policy — some of whom are in the NSC, the vice president’s office, the Pentagon and the State Department — said that only direct and aggressive efforts can shatter Iran’s growing influence…

The decision to use lethal force against Iranians inside Iraq began taking shape last summer, when Israel was at war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Officials said a group of senior Bush administration officials who regularly attend the highest-level counterterrorism meetings agreed that the conflict provided an opening to portray Iran as a nuclear-ambitious link between al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and the death squads in Iraq.

Among those involved in the discussions, beginning in August, were deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, NSC counterterrorism adviser Juan Zarate, the head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, representatives from the Pentagon and the vice president’s office, and outgoing State Department counterterrorism chief Henry A. Crumpton.

The Bush administration made no effort to deny the report.  Indeed, Bush seemed to welcome the chance to confirm the Linzer story.

“It makes sense that if somebody’s trying to harm our troops, or stop us from achieving our goal, or killing innocent citizens in Iraq, that we will stop them,” Bush said in response to a question about the program, the details of which were first reported in yesterday’s Washington Post.

At the time of its publication, the whole idea of a “kill or capture” initiative designed to respond to Iranian attempts to “harm our troops” seemed pretty hypothetical.  There was no specific reference, at the time, to any particular Iranian activity and authorization for the initiative was reportedly given in the summer of 2006.

In retrospect, however, the timing of the Linzer story seems linked to the Karbala compound attack.  Bush already had his casus belli when he warned against Iranian activity in Iraq.

Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that the first obscure mention I’ve found of an Iranian link to the Karbala attack came the day before the Linzer story ran when Bill Roggio–“embedded reporter” to all the big Neo-conservative/ Right Zionist media outlets–appears to have broken the story on his blog, The Fourth Rail.

I sure wish I had better intelligence about Karbala.  I mean, how do we know that the whole city isn’t actually located in the Gulf of Tonkin?

A House Divided

Posted by Cutler on January 30, 2007
Right Arabists, Saudi Arabia / No Comments

James Baker’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee promises to once again bring into focus the ongoing significance of US foreign policy factionalism, both in relation to Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, etc.

That factionalism appears to have divided many long-time friends of the House of Saud.  The House of Saud continues to show similar signs of stress although it is far from clear how much the Saudi fissures are developing autonomously and how much they are being cultivated by US factions.  I suppose there is also a scenario that would have US factionalism cultivated by the Saudis, although I do not find this particularly plausible.

I would continue to code the Baker faction of Right Arabists as allied with Saudi King Abdullah, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, and Prince Turki al-Faisal, the recently recalled Saudi Ambassador to the US.  This Baker/Faisal faction continues to try to mediate strained relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Right Arabists at the New America Foundation, including Flynt Leverett and Steven Clemons appear very closely aligned with the faction.

The Iran hawks are represented by the Cheney coalition of Right Arabists and Right Zionists and appear allied with Prince Bandar and his father, Saudi Defense Minister and Crown Prince, Sultan Bin Abdulaziz.

A recent newspaper interview with Saudi King Abdullah prompted some strikingly different interpretations.  The Financial Times suggested that the King had issued a stark warning to Iran.  But “Badger”–the Arab press translator over at Missing Links–offered up a very different interpretation that emphasized reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

More recently, Badger notes that his interpretation is actively contested by Mamoun Fandy.  Badger describes Fandy as a “Saudi bigshot,” a columnist for Asharq al-Awsat, and a former senior fellow at the James A Baker III Institute of Public Policy.  [Are there other “former” Baker Institute Fellows who side with Cheney on Iran?  Or does Fandy’s link to the Baker crowd imply that Baker is not quite so dovish on Iran after all?  Or is Fandy simply interpreting but not endorsing the King’s remarks?]

Badger doesn’t say much in his post about the larger factional context, but I think it emerges from his discussion of the Fandy article.  Badger writes/translates/paraphrases:

Fandy says the king’s whole point in talking about an “unsatisfactory situation” in the Middle East was to warn Iran: First against underestimating the danger it is facing from the United States; and second against the consequences of its continued involvement in Palestine…

It was on account of the seriousness of the situation, Fandy says, that the king sent Prince Bandar to Tehran for talks. Bandar is the person that is used when a tough message has to be presented bluntly and unvarnished. He is like Cheney in that respect, Fandy explains…

[T]he king referred in the interview to “nests” or “dens”–Fandy doesn’t quote the exact interview remarks here–but Fandy says this is a reference to “cancerous colonies” broadcasting on internet sites of unknown origin deceptive and lying reports about Arab affairs, and more than that, they have penetrated Arab news (outlets) “including the official ones” with the aim of upsetting regional stability, and making it appear that any Arab effort to stand up to Iran is merely a case of doing America’s bidding.

It is possible that Fandy’s remark about penetration of Arab news outlets “including the official ones” is tantamount to an admission that the Fandy hard-line position isn’t the only position, even within the sphere of Saudi officialdom.

Indeed, Fandy’s position is almost certainly not the only position within Saudi officialdom.  Hence the signs of factional strife, with Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority and more hanging in the balance.

War and Pizza

Posted by Cutler on January 27, 2007
Iraq, Isolationism / 2 Comments

No religious ideology can survive without the ritualistic repetition of a catechism.

I can think of no other explanation for the fact that the editorial page of the New York Times constantly hammers away at the same moralistic themes that are undoubtedly already familiar to readers but which presumably only become articles of faith through regular recitations.

The sacred only lives through sacrifice, responsibility, productivity, and work. In a nutshell, the so-called Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. The valorization and celebration of sacrifice–as an end unto itself; as synonymous with all that is Good–is the core of the New York Times editorial catechism.

I’ve posted about this before, on “holy” days of the secular calendar, especially September 11th and Thanksgiving.

The sacrificial motif provides the ideological unity behind any sign of editorial diversity at the NY Times.

Sacrifice is tie that binds the hearts of both pro-war and anti-war columnists.

In one recent column–“Make Them Fight All of Us“–Thomas Friedman criticizes Bush and Cheney for an effete, unmanly approach to war. It seems they don’t understand what a real “surge” is all about:

Mr. President, you want a surge? I’ll surge. I’ll surge on the condition that you once and for all enlist the entire American people in this war effort

But the way you have fought this war – with our pinkie – is contemptible…

Put down that pinkie! Presumably, a real surge requires something more.

[I]f the rest of the world saw all of us sacrificing to win this war, we might actually be able to enlist them to help a little…

Friedman is hardly new to the sacrifice theme. Here, for example, is “Learning From Lance” from July 2005.

What I find most impressive about [Lance] Armstrong [and his cycling team]… [is] their abilities to meld strength and strategy – to thoughtfully plan ahead and to sacrifice today for a big gain tomorrow – seem to be such fading virtues in American life

Oh, well, maybe we have the leaders we deserve. Maybe we just want to admire Lance Armstrong, but not be Lance Armstrong. Too much work. Maybe that’s the wristband we should be wearing: Live wrong. Party on. Pay later.

The anti-war crowd at the NY Times draws from the same playbook, as if anti-war mobilization were necessarily identical to pro-war mobilization. Check out Andrew Rosenthal from August 31, 2006.

Or Bob Herbert’s recent essay on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Lost Voice of Protest” (also here):

[N]ot enough voices of protest are being raised…The anger quotient is much too low. You can’t stop America’s involvement in a senseless war… if your greatest passion is kicking back with pizza and beer and tuning in to “American Idol.”

As it happens, there are voices of protest being raised in Washington today and that is all to the good.

Of course, some of those good people were apparently misled by the signs on the buses in DC that said, “Free Shuttle to the Mall.” A simple misunderstanding.

But I cannot see why it is that liberal anti-war critics at the Times can’t keep there hands off my pizza, beer, and television. And my salted peanuts.

Presumably, one of the reasons to go out and make all those fine speeches is to get on TV (or at least C-SPAN) and sway public opinion against the war. But the vast majority of Americans are already opposed to this war. They like pizza and do not like war. Where is the conflict?

Herbert invokes the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and he is surely right to claim King for his cause. Like Herbert, King was a communitarian moralist. Herbert writes:

And too many black Americans are willing and even eager to see themselves in the culturally depraved lineup of gangsters, pimps and whores.

Dr. King would be 78 now, and I can’t believe that he would be too thrilled by what’s going on. In his view: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

But isn’t there something to be said for those who passively reject? After all, much of King’s tactical répertoire involved passive resistance. Moralistic rhetoric aside, King often located specific forms of leverage in the refusal to participate. Exhibit A: the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

What would it mean to begin by identify all the specific ways in which an unacceptable status quo is preserved through active participation. Just to get the ball rolling, I propose two major areas where there is enormous leverage–and far more pleasure–in passive resistance than in active participation: work and war.

Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? Too busy with the gangsters, pimps and whores, I guess.

A soldier named Daniel Caldwell said it well in the Washington Post: “I want to go back and play my PlayStation.”

Forget work. Forget war. Pass the beer and pizza.

Divided From This Moment

Posted by Cutler on January 26, 2007
Iraq, Right Arabists, Right Zionists / No Comments

The easiest time to be an Iraq war critic is when the US has faced both Sunni and a Shiite uprisings, as it did in April 2004. At such times it appears that the US has precious few Iraqi allies–apart from collaborating Kurds.

At the same time, there are at least two very different and potentially incompatible positions from which to hit the Bush administration during such periods.

Some critics, including Right Arabists of the Baker/Scowcroft variety, want the US to try to coopt the Sunni insurgency and help restore Sunni Arab rule in Iraq, even if by extra-constitutional means (i.e., a coup by Sunni opposition forces in Jordan).

Other critics, including Right Zionists of the David Wurmser/Reuel Marc Gerecht variety, want the US to do the opposite: to crush the Sunni insurgency in order to woo Shiites–including those loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr–and use popular democracy to tilt the balance of power in Iraq toward Shiite political dominance.

After inaugurating the war along Right Zionist lines in early 2003, the Bush administration has essentially waffled between these two alternatives ever since.

At one point in late December 2006, it appeared that the Bush administration was going to move decisively one way or the other.

Bush’s January 10, 2006 was a “flop,” however because it appeared to stick with the muddle in the middle, sticking with Zalmay Khalilzad’s “national reconciliation” project, along with a troop surge. As a result, critics of all stripes are having a field day because after all the deliberations and debate, the Bush administration appears to be “staying the course.”

Here is the strange part: there seem to be signs that the Bush administration is actually changing course with an increasingly dramatic tilt toward the Iraqi Shia–the so-called “Shiite Option” or “80 Percent Doctrine.”

But they seem quite reluctant to say so. Why? Why is it that the Bush administration has never come clean about its tilt toward the Shia?

Of course, the simple reason is that they don’t want to “confess” to such a plan because some very powerful forces oppose a tilt toward the Shia.

Do they think folks like James Baker and Brent Scowcroft won’t notice if the policy is never declared? Do they think Sunni Arabs in Iraq won’t notice? Do they think King Abdullah of Jordan, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, or Egyptian President Mubarak won’t notice? Do they think Americans would notice (or care?) about such things? I don’t get it.

Here are some signs of the (unstated) tilt toward the Iraqi Shia:

US counter-insurgency efforts in Baghdad are, thus far, focusing on Sunni insurgents. The Haifa Street operations that I mentioned in an earlier post have continued.

US relations with Muqtada al-Sadr appear to be improving as the UK and US forces actively court political leaders in Sadr City and appear ready to coopt the Shia militia as part of a security plan to protect Shiites from sectarian attacks.

Iraqi Sunni politicians have taken notice and the spirit of “national reconciliation” in the Iraqi parliament is being seriously challenged. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Iraq’s Shiite prime minister exchanged heated words with a Sunni Arab lawmaker over the country’s new security plan, leading parliament to temporarily suspend a raucous debate and Iraqi television to halt its coverage…

The parliamentary clash took place as Prime Minister Nouri Maliki presented his arguments in favor of the U.S.-backed security plan he called a “strategy to impose the law.” The plan would leave no havens for militants, regardless of religious or political affiliations, he told lawmakers.

“Some say this plan targets Sunnis or Shiites. The fact is this plan targets all who stand in the way of the law,” Maliki said.

Sheik Abdel Nasser Janabi, a Sunni Arab cleric and legislator from a region south of Baghdad notorious as the “triangle of death,” responded by protesting a major sweep by U.S. and Iraqi troops Wednesday through Haifa Street, a Sunni neighborhood near the Green Zone that is dominated by anti-government militants. Sporadic blasts continued Thursday in the area where more than 30 gunmen have been killed in fierce fighting, Iraqi officials said.

Janabi demanded that security forces lift their cordon around the area, insisting to loud protests from the Shiite-dominated chamber that “there are no terrorists in Haifa Street.”

“Aren’t there terrorists in Sadr City or Shula?” he said, referring to two Shiite militia strongholds.

Janabi accused Maliki’s administration of purging Sunni Arabs from the government, arresting pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia and imposing politically motivated death sentences, a possible reference to the execution last month of former President Saddam Hussein.

“We cannot trust this premiership,” Janabi said, as the shouting escalated around him.

Maliki retorted, “All I could tell our brother the sheik is that he will trust in this premiership once we present his file and hold him accountable for it.” As Shiite legislators loudly applauded, he said, “One hundred fifty kidnapped individuals in his area — why doesn’t he talk about that?”

Mahmoud Mashadani, parliament speaker and a Sunni, interrupted the exchange, chiding Maliki for making “unacceptable” accusations and adding with heavy sarcasm that “the security plan will be very successful because you people are divided from this moment.”

Has the US now “picked a winner” in Iraq’s civil war? Is it prepared to ally itself fully with Iraqi Shiites?

If so, listen for more howls of protest from Right Arabists. And smug smiles from Right Zionists.

Cheney’s 2007 State of the Union Address

Posted by Cutler on January 25, 2007
Great Power Rivalry, Iran, Iraq / No Comments

The day after George W. Bush stood before the US Congress, Vice President Cheney delivered his 2007 State of the Union Address on CNN.

Much of it goes to show that Cheney continues to be committed to his original interest in the Wurmser-Gerecht outlook on Iraq.

Iraq, Great Power Rivalry, & The Collapse of Containment

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: [Saddam Hussein] was being contained as we all know —

VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: He was not being contained. He was not being contained, Wolf.

BLITZER: — by the no-fly zones in the north and the south.

CHENEY: Wolf, the entire sanctions regime had been undermined by Saddam Hussein. He had –

BLITZER: But he didn’t have stockpiles of weapons of —

CHENEY: – corrupted the entire effort to try to keep him contained. He was bribing senior officials of other governments. The oil-for-food program had been totally undermined, and he had, in fact, produced and used weapons of mass destruction previously, and he retained the capability to produce that kind of stuff in the future.

BLITZER: But that was in the ’80s.

CHENEY: You can go back and argue the whole thing all over again, Wolf, but what we did in Iraq in taking down Saddam Hussein was exactly the right thing to do; the world is much safer today because of it. There have been three national elections in Iraq, there’s a democracy established there, a constitution, a new democratically elected government, Saddam has been brought to justice and executed, his sons are dead, his government is gone and the world is better off for it.

The Shiite Option & the Najaf-Qom Rivalry

BLITZER: How worried are you of this nightmare scenario, that the U.S. is building up this Shiite-dominated Iraqi government with an enormous amount of military equipment, sophisticated training, and then in the end, they’re going to turn against the United States?

CHENEY: Wolf, that’s not going to happen. The problem that you’ve got –…

BLITZER: Here’s the problem that I see, and tell me if I’m wrong — that he seems to be more interested right now, the Prime Minister of Iraq, in establishing good relations with Iran and Syria than he is with moderate Arab governments, whether in Jordan or Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

CHENEY: I just think you’re wrong, Wolf. He’s been working with all of them. They’re all in the neighborhood. He’s got to develop relationships with all of them, and he is.

BLITZER: Because he’s a Shia, and these moderate Arab governments are Sunni.

CHENEY: He’s also an Iraqi. He’s not a Persian. There’s a big difference between the Persians and the Arabs, although they’re both Shia. You can’t just make the simple statement that he’s Shia, therefore he’s the enemy. The majority of the population in Iraq is Shia. And for the first time, we’ve had elections, and majority rule will prevail there. But the notion that somehow the effort hasn’t been worth it, or that we shouldn’t go ahead and complete the task, is just dead wrong.

On a related note: the Cheney-Bandar Saudi oil war on Iran is very much in the news.  It is all the buzz on NBC and at the World Economic Forum.

The Incompetence of Others

Posted by Cutler on January 24, 2007
Foreign Policy Factions, Iraq / No Comments

I have been content to leave most of the discussion of the “Plame/Libby” case to others, especially National Journal reporter Murray Waas–especially via his blog–and to Swopa over at Needlenose.  For background, check out the Wikipedia entry.

Until the opening day of the trial, the Libby case looked set to be an occasion for critics to celebrate the fact that at least one leading administration official was going to be held accountable for something related to the war in Iraq.  I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Cheney’s former chief of staff, is on trial for perjury.

Now, however, it looks like the trial may shed some light on one major axis of Bush administration factional politics–what Waas calls “an inherent division… between the OVP [Office of the Vice President] and the White House staff.

Here is how Michael Isikoff of Newsweek is reporting the opening of the trial:

Libby, it was widely thought by legal experts, was going to be the good soldier. He would play it safe at his trial in order to preserve his options; mainly, if convicted, to seek a presidential pardon before Bush leaves office.

But no sooner did he start his opening statement Tuesday morning than defense lawyer Ted Wells shocked the courtroom and all but tossed the “pardon strategy” out the window. Seeking to rebut Fitzgerald’s contention that Libby had lied about his knowledge of Plame’s CIA employment in order to save his job with Cheney, Wells shot back: “Mr. Libby was not concerned about losing his job in the Bush administration. He was concerned about being set up, he was concerned about being made the scapegoat”…

[The trial] has raised the prospect that the Libby trial will now turn into a horror show for the White House, forcing current and former top aides to testify against each other and revealing an administration that has been in turmoil over the Iraq war for more than three years

Wells contended, it was Rove—the political strategist—who had to be protected at all costs. He was, Wells said, “the lifeblood of the Republican Party” and the man George W. Bush absolutely needed for the coming re-election campaign. Indeed, after [then-press secretary Scott] McClellan issued a public statement exonerating Rove of any involvement in the leak (a statement that turned out three years later to be false), Cheney and Libby huddled about the matter. McClellan had cleared Rove but at that point had said nothing about Libby, leaving the implication that Libby had leaked but Rove hadn’t. Cheney personally wrote a note, an excerpt of which Wells read to the jury and highlighted by displaying on an audio-visual machine during his opening statement: “Not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others,” Cheney’s note read.

The translation, according to Wells: The vice president was not going to allow Karl Rove to be protected and Libby to be sacrificed…

The opening statements underscored what many had already suspected: that Cheney—who is slated to be called to testify by the defense—will be a crucial witness in the trial…

Let the shooting begin.

Cheney does not appear likely to hang Libby out to dry.  Here is a part of the transcript of a recent Cheney interview with Fox News.

WALLACE: Your former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, goes on trial this coming week on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury…

CHENEY: He’s a friend. He’s a good man. He is one of the finest individuals I’ve ever known…

WALLACE: Is he honest?
CHENEY: I believe he’s one of the more honest men I know. He’s a good man. And I obviously appreciate very much his service on my staff over the years and have very high regard for him and his family…

WALLACE: Given the fact that it now turns out that Libby wasn’t the one who first leaked the name of Valerie Plame, what do you think of the fact that he’s the only one who’s being prosecuted in this case?

CHENEY: I have strong views on the subject, but I’m not going to talk about it…

WALLACE: But there’s nothing that you have heard, nothing that you have read that shakes your confidence in Scooter Libby’s integrity?

CHENEY: That’s correct.

That would seem to raise the specter of an open-air split between Cheney and the White House.

I have suggested that there are probably several layers of substantive, policy elements to this split, as well.

The Libby trial may illuminate a split between Cheney and Rove in ways that help make some sense of the rhythm of Bush administration foreign policy.

Among other things, my sense is that the “muddle-with-a-surge-on-top” that emerged from the White House “Iraq Policy Review” reflected an unwillingness or inability to reconcile the James Baker approach to Iraq and the Cheney faction.

But most of all, I wonder what it might mean for the White House to try to marginalize a sitting Vice President who does not serve at the pleasure of the President.

Back in the Ford administration, Rumsfeld reportedly nudged Nelson Rockefeller off the 1976 re-election ticket.  But that hardly serves as a precedent for the current situation.  Nobody is arguing that the Constitution guarantees the Vice President a spot on the next political ticket.  It does, however, guarantee the Vice President formal autonomy as an elected official.

I do not think Cheney will actually move into the “opposition.”  This would be untenable for the White House.  At the level of factional politics, Cheney may ultimately have his way–in Iraq and elsewhere.

“We Need Some Leverage”

Posted by Cutler on January 23, 2007
Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia / No Comments

When tracing US policy toward Iran, keep one eye on the aircraft carrier groups and one eye on the gas pump.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had this to say about Iran:

Gates said he had told the leaders of U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar that the Iranians “believe they have the United States at some disadvantage because of the situation in Iraq.”

“To be precise, I told them both that I thought the Iranians were overplaying their hand and that one of the consequences of that is that they have raised real concerns on the part of a number of countries in the region and beyond about their intentions,” he told reporters…

With regard to U.S. failure thus far to achieve stability in Iraq, Gates said, “I think that our difficulties have given them (the Iranians) a tactical opportunity in the short term, but the United States is a very powerful country.”

Asked about the prospects for military conflict with Iran, whose nuclear program is seen by the Bush administration as a growing threat to U.S. interests, Gates said, “There are many courses of action available that do not involve an open conflict with Iran – there’s no need for that.”

Gates said that although he had publicly advocated negotiating with Iran as recently as 2004, he now advises against that.

Right at this moment, there’s really nothing the Iranians want from us,” he said. “And so, in any negotiation right now we would be the supplicant,” asking Iran to stop doing such things as enriching uranium for its nuclear program.

We need some leverage, it seems to me, before we engage with the Iranians,” Gates added.

Gates has come around to the Caspar Weinberger school of dealing with Iran.  In the 2004 report of the Council on Foreign Relations Iran Task Force that Gates co-chaired with Zbigniew Brzezinski, the proposal to engage Iran prompted Weinberger protégé and Task Force member Frank Carlucci to offer a “dissenting view” (published as part of the report, page 49):

While I agree with the main thrust of the report I do not agree that the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan may offer Iran new incentives to open a mutually beneficial dialogue. On the contrary, I believe Iran has few incentives for dialogue. They are convinced we intend to overthrow them, and they believe we are bogged down in Iraq and have lost what support we had in the Arab world. From their perspective, it is better to wait and let us stew in our own juice. Overtures on our part, under these circumstances, are likely to be interpreted as a sign of weakness

Hence, the Gates quest for “some leverage.”

Floating Leverage

Sometimes leverage comes in the form of aircraft carriers like the USS John C. Stennis.

The deployment of the USS John C. Stennis to the Middle East will put two U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf region for the first time since the 2003 Iraq invasion, in a clear response to Iran’s aggressive posture in the region…

“This demonstrates our resolve to do what we can to bring security and stability to the region,” Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain said Tuesday…

A second U.S. carrier will significantly boost U.S. air power in the region and serve to remind Iran of American firepower. Its arrival will give the Pentagon two carriers in the region for the first time since 2003, Aandahl said.

After departing Tuesday from its homeport of Bremerton, Wash., the Stennis will stop in San Diego to pick up an air wing of more than 80 planes, including F/A-18 Hornet and Superhornet fighter-bombers, the Navy said…

The Stennis and its 3,200 sailors lead a strike group consisting of the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam, three Navy destroyers – the USS O’Kane, Preble and Paul Hamilton – the submarine USS Key West, the guided-missile frigate USS Rentz, as well as the supply ship USNS Bridge, the Navy said.

Diplomatic Dead Ends

In addition to the naval buildup in the Gulf–and the troop surge in Iraq–there are the more “diplomatic” forms of leverage.

Columnist Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post reports that the search for leverage will not focus on the United Nations:

While Rice was traveling in the Middle East and Europe last week, American allies were being told that Washington would not seek new and tougher Security Council sanctions against Iran, as has been widely expected…

Russia’s unexpectedly strong opposition even to weak sanctions adopted only after months of debate has deepened Bush’s growing disillusionment with President Vladimir Putin.

The American leader is determined not to get caught in “a dead end” at the United Nations, according to U.S. officials.  Bush is said to feel that Putin went back on personal pledges to support meaningful U.N. action in return for Bush’s committing to diplomatic efforts last June.

Petro Leverage

According to Hoagland, the key plan for developing “leverage” in the Gulf depends on the Saudis and oil leverage.

Instead of returning to the United Nations for a new resolution, the administration has launched a broad effort to assemble an economic coalition of the willing to confront Iran. Trade, investment and the price of oil are the primary targets Washington chose for this coalition.

The idea of trade and investment “sanctions” have long been championed by Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But the oil leverage is the central strategic element in the new “campaign” for leverage.

The campaign received a big boost last week when it became clear that Saudi Arabia is finally worried enough about Iran to use oil as a weapon against the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Saudi oil minister Ali Nuaimi publicly opposed Iranian calls for production cuts by the OPEC cartel to halt a decline that has taken crude oil from $78 a barrel in July to just above $50 a barrel last week.

The Saudis have enough reserve production capacity to swing OPEC prices up and down at will. Their relatively small population gives them a flexibility in postponing revenue gains that populous Iran lacks. Nuaimi’s pronouncement, although cast as a technical matter that had nothing to do with politics, seemed to give teeth to recent warnings issued in private by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national security adviser, that the kingdom will now respond to Iranian hostility with its own confrontational tactics.

High oil  prices have always benefited Iranian leverage in the region.  Saudi leverage has always stemmed from its ability to flood the market and wait for other oil exporting countries to cry uncle.

The role of Bandar in this campaign is crucial because it goes to the heart of a long-term factional fight within the House of Saud, as Hoagland well understands.

Divisions within the Saudi royal family over how to handle Iran also should be handled with care, not bluster, by Washington.

Recall that the divisions within the Saudi royal family recently surfaced in late November with the publication of an op-ed by Nawaf Obaid.  Obaid explicitly endorsed the oil threat and seemed to claim to speak for Bandar:

Major Saudi tribal confederations, which have extremely close historical and communal ties with their counterparts in Iraq, are demanding action. They are supported by a new generation of Saudi royals in strategic government positions who are eager to see the kingdom play a more muscular role in the region

[Saudi King] Abdullah may decide to strangle Iranian funding of the militias through oil policy. If Saudi Arabia boosted production and cut the price of oil in half, the kingdom could still finance its current spending. But it would be devastating to Iran, which is facing economic difficulties even with today’s high prices. The result would be to limit Tehran’s ability to continue funneling hundreds of millions each year to Shiite militias in Iraq and elsewhere.

Until recently, King Abdullah and oil minister Ali Nuaimi (also, Ali Naimi) have been seen as supporting the oil price spike.  But Naimi, in particular, might have been “moved” by recent chatter about a cabinet shuffle that would remove him from the oil ministry.

Iranian Endgame

Perhaps the goal, in this quest for leverage, is to establish the preconditions for engagement with the regime.

For now, the folks like Richard Perle, still hoping that US leverage would be used to destabilize the regime itself, appear frustrated with the Bush administration.

Perle expressed astonishment at the lack of support granted by the West to Iranian opposition movements who wish to overthrow the regime of the Ayatollahs.

“I’m not convinced that we have a lot of time. Given the peril that would result, its astonishing to me that we do not now have a serious political strategy with Iran,” he said, adding he thought regime change is “the only significant effective way” to deal with the Iranian threat.

“If we continue on our current course, we have only a military option. So what I’m urging, and this should have happened a very long time ago, is that we make a serious effort to work with the internal (Iranian) opposition,” Perle said.

Any “leverage” that Gates can find may make Perle’s case for him.  The internal opposition is showing some early signs of renewed activity.

[UPDATE: those hoping to exacerbate tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran can only be pleased by the confrontation playing out on the streets of Lebanon.

The clash over Lebanon may represent one locus of disagreement within the Saudi royal family.  Saudi King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal have both worked hard to heal the breach between Hezbollah and the Saudi-backed Hariri/Siniora crowd in Lebanon.  Meanwhile, over at the Telegraph Bandar is mentioned as a link between the Saudis and CIA efforts to undermine Hezbollah.]

The Axis of Irbil

Posted by Cutler on January 20, 2007
Iran, Iraq / No Comments

When the US detained several groups of Iranian officials in late December and mid-January, the whole affair seemed to simply be part of a larger media campaign of anti-Iranian rhetoric from the Bush administration. The raid that resulted in the mid-January detention of five Iranians coincided with Bush’s January 10, 2007 speech in which he asserted,

Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We’ll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.

The raids that led to the mid-January detentions were undoubtedly part of the larger media campaign that also included bellicose remarks from Vice President Cheney.

More recently, however, Eli Lake at the Right Zionist New York Sun has raised the ideological stakes with reporting on the detainees now being dubbed The Irbil Five by the editorial page of that paper.

Lake’s report includes two new claims about the Irbil Five. The first claim is that there is–surprise!–factional fighting within the Bush administration about how to deal with the Iranians.

The American government is deadlocked on the issue of whether to allow five Iranians captured last Wednesday in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil to return home, according to three administration officials…

On one side of the bureaucratic debate are the CIA and the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs Bureau. According to one administration official familiar with the debate, they argue that the prolonged detention of the suspected Quds force operatives will provoke a further escalation with Iran and scuttle the Iraqi government’s plan to help secure Baghdad with American soldiers. On the other side of the debate are the Pentagon’s special operations office, the Marines, and the Army — which have pleaded that the captured Iranians are too great a danger to American forces to return to Iran.

This split is interesting, if not altogether surprising. If true, it tends to confirm the idea that much of the uniformed military brass in the US is decided hawkish about Iran. Lake doesn’t mention Cheney as a player in this factional fight. That seems unlikely.

But Lake drops a bomb toward the end of his report:

One intelligence official who has seen much of the early reporting on the Irbil raid said yesterday that it linked the Iranians to Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army operations in Kirkuk as well as anti-Kurdish operations from Ansar al-Sunna. Ansar al-Sunna is an outgrowth of the defeated Ansar al-Islam, a Qaeda-affiliated Sunni organization that tried to assassinate one of Iraq’s deputy prime ministers, Barham Salih.

This reference to Sadr’s role in Kirkuk raises some very serious issues that I discussed in a prior post: Sadr is no friend of the Kurds.

The idea of an alliance between Iran, Sadr’s Mahdi army, and Ansar al-Sunna is an extremely explosive charge. It appears to be linked to other related accusations from the Right Zionist Washington Institute for Near East Policy. A recent report by Soner Cagaptay and Daniel Fink presses the Sadr-Sunni link.

On January 14, in a rare show of unity, Sunni and Shiite Arab, Turkmen, and Christian Iraqis gathered at a conference in Ankara to denounce Kurdish plans to incorporate Kirkuk, the capital of Iraq’s at-Tamim province, into the Kurdish region…

Muqtada al-Sadr has not wasted any time in organizing Shiite Arabs expelled by the Kurds. The Iraqi constitution fails to address what is to happen to Shiite families settled by Saddam in Kirkuk—most of whom have now lived in Kirkuk for more than a generation, and have no homes to return to—as well as those families who came to Kirkuk as labor migrants. These Shiite Arabs expelled by the Kurds have accepted a helping hand from Sadr and now support him. Meanwhile, Shiite Turkmens alienated by the main Turkmen party, the Iraqi Turkmen Front, whose leadership has been traditionally comprised of Sunni Turkmens (around half of Iraqi Turkmens are Shiites) have also been recruited by Sadr. The Shiite militias first appeared to confront growing Kurdish control over Kirkuk with the arrival of Sadr’s Mahdi Army in 2004. Their activity began with intimidating Shiite residents into remaining in Kirkuk. This has since escalated into attacks against Kurds. Neighborhood Shiite groups are also responsible for perpetrating acts of violence against Kurds.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda affiliates such as Ansar al-Sunna are known to be helping and recruiting Sunni Arabs and even traditionally secular Sunni Turkmens—most of whom have been expelled from Kirkuk by the Kurds. Kirkuk has witnessed increased al-Qaeda presence. The majority of the twenty suicide bombings perpetrated in Kirkuk from July to October 2006 are presumably the work of al-Qaeda affiliates.

While Iraq has experienced increased sectarian tension between Shiite and Sunni groups since the February 22, 2006, bombing of the Askariya shrine, ironically, in Kirkuk, these groups have been united in their opposition to Kurdish political designs for the city.

The whole idea of Sadrist links with Iran have always seemed complex to me. He had early support from Ayatollah Haeri in the Iranian city of Qom, but that relationship has seemed rocky at times.

Nevertheless, if I were going to give any credence to the idea of a broad Sadrist network that includes Iran it would seem at least as likely that the chief target of that alliance would be Kurds in Kirkuk as it would be Sunnis in Baghdad.

Turkey has made no secret of its opposition to Kurdish control of Kirkuk.

Does Iran really fear the Kurds?

Many Kurdish leaders appear to have relatively good relations with Iran.

Within the US, however, there are Iran hawks who are certainly hoping to drive a wedge between Iran and the Kurds.

See, for example, a recent Jamestown Foundation report that includes a glowing profile of the Party for Freedom and Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), the anti-Iranian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

As the confrontation between Iran and the West escalates, international attention has increasingly focused on Tehran’s internal vulnerability. In particular, analysts point out that Iran’s “imperial” past has resulted in ethnic Persians—who make up scarcely half of Iran’s 80 million people—holding disproportionate power, wealth and influence. If the crisis with Iran escalates further, Iran’s neglected and often resentful Kurdish, Azeri and Arab minorities may increasingly play a key role in global events. At the forefront will likely be Iran’s Kurds, and chief among them PJAK, which for nearly a decade has worked to replace Iran’s theocratic government with a federal and democratic system, respectful of human rights, sexual equality and freedom of expression.

Are the tensions in Kirkuk insufficient to ignite tensions between Sadrists and the Kurds? If so, one “creative” way to get something going might be to send Kurdish forces to Baghdad as part of a crackdown on Sadr City.

Thankfully, nobody would ever dream of anything like that!

My question: is there a strategic aim here, apart from universal chaos?

The “looming crisis” of Kirkuk would tend to isolate the Kurds against an alliance that could united Iraqi Shiites, Iraqi Sunni Arabs, Turkey, Iran, all the major countries of the Sunni Arab bloc.

This can hardly be a recipe for Kurdish success.

Perhaps it is intended to foster Iraqi and regional unity, albeit over the bloodied “corpse” of Kurdish Kirkuk.

Sadr: Confrontation or Cooptation?

Posted by Cutler on January 19, 2007
Iraq / No Comments

In a prior post, I noted that Reuel Marc Gerecht over at the Right Zionist American Enterprise Institute was quite adamant that the US should not inaugurate a new, aggressive counter-insurgency campaign with direct confrontation with Sadr.

It now appears that the US (and Prime Minister Maliki) has gone ahead–pace Gerecht (and Cheney?)–and launched a crackdown on Sadr’s organization, including at least one high level leader.  CNN is reporting:

In an overnight raid, Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops captured a top aide to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in eastern Baghdad, the militia’s spokesman told CNN Friday.

The spokesman said Sheikh Abdul al-Hadi Darraji — the director of Sadr’s main offices in Sadr City — was arrested at a mosque in the eastern Baghdad neighborhood of Belediyat, just outside Sadr City.

A U.S. military statement Friday did not name Darraji specifically but did announce U.S. and Iraqi forces had arrested a “high-level, illegal armed group leader” blamed for kidnapping, torturing and killing Iraqi civilians while heading an “illegal armed group punishment committee.”

In addition, the “armed group leader” is suspected of working with “death squad commanders” and armed group cells that practice sectarian revenge killings in Baghdad.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Wednesday that security forces in recent days cracked down on the Mehdi Army. He said 400 arrests were made.

The last time the US moved against a top aide to Sadr, back in April 2004, the capture sparked a Shiite uprising in Baghdad.

At several points in 2006, the US has been to the brink of a renewed confrontation with Sadr.  But each move has been short-circuited.

Is the US now courting a full confrontation with Shiite Baghdad?  If so, it is not hard to imagine how a Shiite rebellion might ensue and how this uprising, in turn, might lead the US and some elements of the Sunni political elite to call for the formation of a “national salvation government”–an anti-Shiite coup–to quell the unrest and “restore order.”

In another scenario, Sadr himself has given the green light for Maliki’s move against Sheikh Abdul al-Hadi Darraji, not only to appease the US but also to let US forces battle rogue forces within his own Mahdi Army militia.

The US is suggesting that Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji has links to Abu Diraa, the figure I have been calling the Keyser Söze of Sadr City.  The Associated Press makes the link:

“The suspect allegedly leads various illegal armed group operations and is affiliated with illegal armed group cells targeting Iraqi civilians for sectarian attacks and violence,” [a military] statement read, adding he was believed to be affiliated with Baghdad death squad commanders, including Abu Diraa, a Shiite militia leader who has gained a reputation for his brutality.

The AP story also includes a threat from Sadrists in Najaf of a violent backlash:

Abdul-Razzaq al-Nidawi, an al-Sadr aide in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, demanded that al-Darraji and other detainees from the cleric’s movement, be released and called for demonstrations after the weekly Friday prayer services.

“America is playing with fire and our patience is beginning to fade,” he said. “This savage barbarian act will not pass peacefully.”

But Reuters reports that the Sadrists disavowed a violent response:

The U.S. military said in a statement that Iraqi special forces backed by American advisers seized an unnamed man they described as a death squad leader wanted for kidnap, torture and murder and linked to fugitive Shi’ite warlord Abu Deraa.

Aides to Sadr said the man held was Abdul-Hadi al-Darraji, a prominent media spokesman for their movement. An official in Sadr’s political office branded his detention a deliberate “provocation” but said they would not respond with violence.

Gerecht has suggested that Sadr “may play along.”  But that idea was predicated on a US campaign that began by targeting the Sunni insurgency, not the Shia of Sadr City.

This move against al-Darraji makes it seem like the point of the “surge” is to take on the Shia.  Even at the level of appearances, this move could provoke a Shiite backlash–a rebellion that extends beyond the control of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Gerecht & Cheney

Posted by Cutler on January 17, 2007
Iraq, Right Zionists / No Comments

Maybe Reuel Marc Gerecht doesn’t matter.  Gerecht does not now and has never served as a member of the Bush administration’s foreign policy team.  Perhaps his views on Iraq are merely those of a think tank wonk pontificating and prescribing from the sidelines as history rolls along without even a passing glance in his direction.

Maybe.

But the real issue is not Gerecht’s personal influence but the possibility that his views can be considered representative of those held by figures in the White House whose service inside the administration seems to imply a veritable gag order.

Can Gerecht be taken to be a proxy for the views of David Wurmser, the current “Middle East” expert on Cheney’s National Security staff whose wife–Meyrav Wurmser–referenced just such a gag order in a recent interview?

There is no way to gauge, from the outside, Wurmser’s current influence on Cheney’s thinking.  But Wurmser serves at the pleasure of the Vice President. He has not yet been shown the door, nor has he resigned in protest.

I have previously noted the strong continuities between Wurmser’s earlier published work on Iraq and Gerecht’s writing.  Prior to his service in the Bush administration, Wurmser was the Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute.  Gerecht is his successor in that role.

All of which goes to the value of attending to Gerecht’s views, even as these views are disparaged by critics who dismiss them as “wishful thinking and unsubstantiated assertions flavored with a healthy dose of ad hominem attack against any who question him.”

As I have noted in a recent post, Gerecht has been promoting what is best described as a stridently pro-Shiite option abandons all pretense to national reconciliation in Iraq, even as he remains dismayed by the level of factional infighting within the Bush administration.

His most recent missive is a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “Petraeus Time.”

The good news is that by emphasizing a military, not political, strategy to diminish Iraq’s debilitating violence, the president has correctly set aside one of the primary factors destroying the Shiite Arab center. While waiting for a “political solution” to the Sunni insurgency, we watched Shiite timidity and patience turn to anger–and to a revenge which now threatens the integrity of the Shiite-led Iraqi government… The reversal of this soft-power, politics-not-troops mentality is an essential step forward…

Nevertheless, there is a dismaying hesitancy in the military’s and the White House’s deliberations on this conflict. Although the president wants a new approach, the Pentagon, the State Department and even the National Security Council appear wedded to the past. The contradiction between what the president says and what his government does has never been greater.

Presumably, Cheney stands behind the president in favoring such a “new approach.”  This, at least, has been a persistent rumor.

Gerecht–whose tenure with the CIA focused on Iran and who has been consistently hawkish on Iran–exhibits no fear of Shiite power in Iraq.

The administration needs to rethink its understanding of Iraqi culture and politics, as the “new” strategy still contains ideas that have catastrophically guided American officials in the Green Zone ever since Sunni Arab insurgents started killing Americans in significant numbers. U.S. officials still believe they must soon see sectarian reconciliation, a reversal of de-Baathification, and a nonsectarian, equitable distribution of oil wealth.

All these achievements are meant to placate the aggrieved Sunni Arabs, who represent 15% of the population…

For the serious ex-Baathists, Sunni supremacists and Iraqi Sunni fundamentalists–the lethal hardcore of the insurgency–it’s still a good bet that they’re not into democratic negotiations…

If the U.S. and Iraqi governments are going to bring peace to the “Sunni triangle,” they must break the back of the insurgency. A minority, used to the prerogatives of a communitarian dictatorship, the Sunnis have been trying to derail the new Iraq: They must come to know that they will lose everything if they don’t abandon violence as their principal political tool… This means, as it has always meant, a combined American and Shiite Iraqi occupation of major Sunni Arab cities.

Baghdad is the first step…

Gen. Petraeus will have to deal with Muqtada al-Sadr. The thuggish son of Iraq’s most revered clerical family, he has become for many Shiites in Baghdad a rapturously praised defender. This esteem is merited: He, not any American general, increased the security of the average Shiite in the capital. And if he is smart, he’ll attack the Americans before they have the chance to deploy much new strength. If the Americans successfully down Sunni insurgents in the capital, then they will go after Mr. Sadr.

But the U.S. military should absolutely not go after Mr. Sadr first…

The key here is how Shiites view the first encounter. If it goes against the insurgents… [Sadr] just may play along. He and his forces were mauled by the Americans in 2004. Since then they haven’t been particularly bold in attacking U.S. soldiers. Mr. Sadr has recently manifested some statesmen-like behavior, and has been more correct in his behavior toward Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual guide of Iraq’s Shia and a bulwark of moderation.

Who else but Gerecht speaks of Sadr in such respectful terms?

Certainly not the military brass.

The only person I can think of is… the Vice President of the United States:

KUDLOW: I also want to ask you, in that same vain of American toughness in winning the war, this guy al Sadr is still out there. There’s been a warrant for his arrest for three years. His death squads, his militias, they’re killing rival Shias, they’re killing Sunnis. They tried to plot to take over the interior department in Baghdad. Why is he still on the loose? A lot of people say, why don’t we rub out al Sadr? Why don’t we take him into custody? That would be a sign of winning…

VICE PRESIDENT CHENEY: He is — obviously speaks for a significant number of Iraqis, has a strong following…

Between Iran and Saudi Arabia

Posted by Cutler on January 16, 2007
Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia / 1 Comment

Are the Saudis and the Iranians patching things up, even as the US tries to foment regional tension between Sunnis and Shiites in order to build US support for an aggressive policy toward Iran?

The headlines certainly suggest as much.  Reuters reports:

Iran asked Saudi Arabia to help ease tensions between the Islamic Republic and the United States as Washington held out the possibility of “engagement” with Tehran if it changed tack in Iraq.

A letter was delivered by [Ali Larijani] Tehran’s chief nuclear negotiator to the Saudi King from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Saudi official said on Monday. The official said Iran wanted Saudi leaders to relay a goodwill message to Washington.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry has subsequently denied the report and called “baseless” the claim that Iran asked Riyadh to mediate between Iran and the US.

But the real problem with the “detente” scenario may be that it assumes that foreign policy is directed by a unified actor each of the three countries: Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.  It would likely be far more accurate to say that some Saudis and some Iranians want to patch things up, even as some in the US press for a more aggressive policy toward Iran.

Factional Iran

The factions in Iran are complex, but most reports that bother to even note the possibility of internal fissures make clear that Ali Larijani represents an Iranian faction that favors improved relations with the Saudis.  The Reuters report about the Iranian Foreign Ministry, for example, presents Larijani as a factional player:

Larijani’s visit came shortly before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday, as part of a Middle East tour. Rice and other U.S. leaders have put a fresh emphasis on checking Iran’s influence in Iraq and elsewhere.

Larijani’s visit, said Iranian political scientist Nasser Hadian-Jazy, “is a counter move to what Secretary Rice is going to do to unite the Arabs against Iran.”

But he said it also shows the renewed influence of moderate conservatives, like Larijani, amid growing public criticism of Ahmadinejad and his anti-U.S. speeches that are seen to have exacerbated tensions, particularly over the nuclear file.

Some politicians and officials say Larijani and other moderate officials are frustrated by Ahmadinejad, who they say has provoked confrontation and made it more difficult for Iran to secure what it calls its “nuclear rights”.

“In a calm and quiet atmosphere, Iran can neutralise America’s pressure on its atomic work. Fiery speeches worsen the situation,” said one official, who asked not to be identified because of sensitivity of the issue.

Ahmadinejad may not be the most powerful figure in Iran, where the final say rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but Western diplomats say his provocative public tone has helped drive a tougher line.

Factional United States

The outline of key factional lines within the US represent a split among Right Arabists with figures like James Baker and Flynt Leverett eager to find a way to do business at least some element of the incumbent regime in Iran and Right Arabists like James Akins who are very hawkish on Iran.

Along with his Right Zionist advisor David Wurmser, Cheney is undeniably hawkish on Iran, as he made clear in his recent interview with Fox News.

WALLACE: What’s the message that you’re sending to Iran? And how tough are you prepared to get?

CHENEY: Well, I think it’s been pretty well-known that Iran is fishing in troubled waters, if you will, inside Iraq. And the president has responded to that, as you suggest. I think it’s exactly the right thing to do.

And Iran’s a problem in a much larger sense. They have begun to conduct themselves in ways that have created a great deal of tension throughout the region. If you go and talk with the Gulf states or if you talk with the Saudis or if you talk about the Israelis or the Jordanians, the entire region is worried, partly because of the conduct of Mr. Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, who appears to be a radical, a man who believes in an apocalyptic vision of the future and who thinks it’s imminent.

At the same time, of course, they’re pursuing the acquisition of nuclear weapons. They are in a position where they sit astride the Straits of Hormuz, where over 20 percent of the world’s supply of oil transits every single day, over 18 million barrels a day.

They use Hezbollah as a surrogate. And working through Syria with Hezbollah, they’re trying to topple the democratically elected government in [Lebanon]. Working through Hamas and their support for Hamas in Gaza, they’re interfering in the peace process.

So the threat that Iran represents is growing, it’s multi- dimensional, and it is, in fact, of concern to everybody in the region.

Factional Saudi Arabia

The most difficult factional battle to trace–on Iran and much else–is surely the struggle within the Saudi regime.  Transparency is minimal and open source news analysis is surely inadequate and often simplistic.

The hypothesis that most recently made news as that Cheney and Prince Bandar–and perhaps Crown Prince Sultan–were joined in a hawkish alliance regarding Iran while Saudi King Abdullah–along with Foreign Minister Prince Saud and former Saudi Ambassador to the US Prince Turki–favored a more conciliatory approach toward Iran.

It is difficult, at the moment, to find much sunlight between Saudi royal factions.  On his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s Ali Larijani met with all the key players, including Bandar.  And according to official Iranian news, the Iranian Ambassador to Iran recently had an audience with Bandar’s father, Crown Prince Sultan.

Still, I suspect that the factionalism remains.  An Associated Press report from January 8, 2007 speculated that tensions would re-appear by March because King Abdullah was expected to announce a cabinet reshuffle that would go to the heart of some of the battles for power within the Kingdom.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is considering a major Cabinet reshuffle soon, the first since he ascended to the throne of the oil-rich kingdom, diplomats and Saudi media said Monday.

The reshuffle may include key posts such as foreign minister, which has been held by Prince Saud al-Faisal for more than 30 years, and the influential oil minister, they said…

“It is up to the (king) to decide, and no one has the right to talk about that except him,” Crown Prince Sultan was quoted as saying in the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, which is owned by the Saudi royal family. “What he decides is good for all.”

It is rare for a royal family member to even refer to such an issue publicly and was viewed as a significant hint that changes are coming…

Saudis who have intimate knowledge of the discussions regarding the possible reshuffle said al-Faisal, who has had health problems, might be replaced by Crown Prince Sultan’s son Prince Bandar, a former ambassador to Washington and current secretary of the National Security Council. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

The Saudi independent Internet news service, Elaph… said veteran Oil Minister Ali Naimi is among those expected to leave their posts. Naimi, 67 and an oil engineer, has been in his job for more than a decade…

The royal family and government leaders are believed to be deeply divided over how to handle the growing crisis in Iraq and Iran’s increasing regional influence.

If speculation about factional lines are correct, then the selection of Prince Bandar as Foreign Minister and the departure of Oil Minister Ali Naimi will both mark major victories for the factions most closely aligned with Cheney.

Taken together, these events would tend to undermine any spirit of detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Many questions remain, but at least one concerns Iraq.  Would Bandar’s faction support a Shiite Iraq under the influence of Sistani, or would he demand–as his price for cooperation on Iran–the restoration of Sunni rule under an extra-constitutional “national salvation government,” i.e., an anti-Shiite coup?

For the record, I would not rule out the probability of a Bandar-Sistani axis.

Sadr’s New American Friends

Posted by Cutler on January 12, 2007
Iraq, Right Zionists / No Comments

Blake Hounshell at FP Passport points out that Bush’s “New Way Forward” in Iraq reiterates the demand that Prime Minister Maliki facilitate a military crackdown on Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army. Or, at least a crackdown on “rogue elements” of the militia.

For a while, it seemed like the entire US foreign policy establishment was united by a common atipathy toward the Sadrists.

More recently, however, Right Zionists like Reuel Marc Gerecht who have long feared that Sadr would marginalize “moderate” Shia figures like Grand Ayatollah Sistani have argued that the best way to marginalize Sadr is not through frontal assault on Sadr City, but through a beefed up, unrelenting assault against Sunni insurgents.

The White House is not reading from the Gerecht playbook. The pressure is for Maliki to green light a break with Sadr.

But Gerecht’s Washington defeats may yet prove to be Baghdad “victories” if Shiite political forces resist the White House plan.

That resistance will get coded by most US commentators, especially on the Left, as a defeat, a blow to US power, etc. But it is worth keeping in mind that Washington is factionalized. The Iraqi Shia may hand a massive defeat to Bush and Right Arabists. But this may not necessarily imply a defeat for Right Zionists–or Cheney. On the contrary, Right Zionists may already have unleashed forces in Iraq that Right Arabist Washington is unable to contain, notwithstanding the best efforts by Zalmay Khalilzad to close pandora’s box.

Roula Khalaf and Steve Negus of the Financial Times seem to agree that Bush is sticking with the Khalilzad playbook, but they have serious reservations about the odds of political success (let alone military success).

Largely focused on a military push, the new US “way forward” for Iraq depends heavily on the weak Iraqi government’s will and ability to adopt controversial policies it has so far resisted…

Despite the administration’s public support for Mr Maliki, US officials have repeatedly complained about his resistance to reining in Shia militias, some of which are affiliated with parties in the ruling Shia coalition that brought him to power…

Mr Maliki announced a new security plan for Baghdad on Saturday, in which he suggested that government forces would make more serious attempts to contain Shia militias…

Although the US says American and Iraqi troops will now have a free hand to conduct operations in the capital, assaults on the overpopulated suburb of Sadr city, the Mahdi army stronghold, would carry huge risks for Washington, radicalising more Shia and turning them against the US.

American pressure on the government over the past year to make political concessions to the Sunni minority, which has been marginalised since the 2003 invasion, already has made many Shia suspicious of US intentions…

Khalaf and Negus temper this analysis with some factors that may work in favor of the White House plan:

On the other hand, Mr Maliki’s standing with his own core constituency seems to have recovered somewhat with the hanging of Saddam Hussein in the face of opposition from Sunni Arabs inside Iraq and in the region.

This, together with the imminent departure of US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad who was seen as the architect of a pro-Sunni policy, may give Mr Maliki the freedom to take actions that would otherwise alienate his own Shia constituency.

Will Maliki move against his own base? In the last instance, Khalaf and Negus seem dubious:

But some members of Mr Maliki’s coalition believe that the Shia government should shrug off American pressure. They have said that Iraq does not need any more foreign troops and instead have called for Iraqi units to be transferred to an Iraqi chain of command…

[S]ome Sunni politicians doubt the [Maliki] government has any real intention of controlling militias and is instead supporting them in the hopes of winning the sectarian battles for Baghdad neighbourhoods and districts near to the capital.

Seen from this light, Mr Maliki’s acquiescence to the Bush plan may appear simply to be a play for time as the country’s new Shia leaders cement their control over the capital.

The Bush plan may be D.O.A. But don’t expect Right Zionists to shed any tears.

Which Way Forward in Iraq?

Posted by Cutler on January 10, 2007
Iraq / No Comments

The preview of the Iraq Policy Review seemed to indicate that the Bush administration was thinking of the new “Way Forward” in Iraq as consistent with efforts to woo Sunni political forces into government, even as the US tried to isolate Muqtada al-Sadr and crackdown on the Shiite militias of Sadr City.  Here is the preview from the Washington Post‘s Robin Wright:

The centerpiece of the political plan is the creation of a national reconciliation government that would bring together the two main Shiite parties with the two largest Kurdish parties and the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials. The goal is to marginalize Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the largest and most powerful Shiite militia and head of a group that has 30 seats in parliament and five cabinet posts.

But it seems as though the “Way Forward” may actually mark more of a shift.  And that shift may have already begun.

I have in mind the operation, initiated by US forces, to take control of Haifa Street.  Here is the Washington Post report:

The fighting in the area began four days ago, when Iraqi soldiers killed 30 insurgents after uncovering what was described as an unauthorized checkpoint, according to a Defense Ministry spokesman. Pearson said Iraqi army commanders asked for U.S. assistance after insurgents killed several Iraqi soldiers two days ago.

At 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, about 400 U.S. troops from the Stryker Brigade rolled toward Haifa Street, meeting up with Iraqi army units along the way.

They arrived about 5:30 a.m. In the pre-dawn darkness, the joint forces took control of the buildings surrounding Tallil Square, a key target of the operation.

“We showed up in their living room for breakfast,” Pearson said. About 7 a.m., the trouble began. “As soon as the sun came up, the insurgents began shooting,” he said.

“We started taking it from all sides,” [Sgt. Israel] Schaeffer recalled.

From rooftops and doorways, the gunmen fired AK-47 assault rifles and machine guns. Snipers also were targeting the U.S. and Iraqi soldiers. U.S. soldiers started firing back with 50-caliber machine guns mounted on their Stryker armored vehicles. They used TOW missiles and Mark-19 grenade launchers. The F-15 fighter jets strafed rooftops with cannons, while the Apaches fired Hellfire missiles. But the insurgents kept fighting.

“They were able to coordinate mortars at us. They were able to execute well-aimed shots from the cover of buildings,” said Capt. Robert Callaghan, who was coordinating air support for the operation. “There were mortar rounds that went off close to our vehicle. It was difficult to concentrate on my job.”

Schaeffer was surprised. He was accustomed to the hit-and-run tactics that the insurgents typically have used over the past few months.

“We fired a TOW missile into a building,” he said. “A few minutes later we started taking fire again from the building. Normally, that would have pretty much ended the whole engagement. They were fighting pretty persistently.”

“The terrain was in their favor,” he added. “It is about as defensible a terrain as you can get.”

Sounds like urban counter-insurgency.  In a Sunni neighborhood.

Are Sunni political leaders–especially the ones the Bush administration are supposedly courting–on board with the new “way forward”?

Not so much.

In a statement, the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party described the 50 killed as “innocent citizens.” It asserted that Sunnis on Haifa Street were “under siege” by Shiite militias backed by the Iraqi army.

The Iraqi Islamic Party.  Isn’t that the party–led by White House visitor and Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi that was supposed to form the Sunni backbone of the new “moderate” government the Bush administration was trying to promote to beat back Sadr?

Add, on top of that, the fact that the military brass is backing off from a confrontation with Sadr himself:

Odierno said U.S. forces would leave dealing with Sadr to Iraqi authorities. “I’m not sure we take him down,” he said.

“There are some extreme elements (of the Mehdi Army) … and we will go after them. I will allow the government to decide whether (Sadr) is part of it or not. He is currently working within the political system.”

What does it all add up to?

The Shiite Option after all?

Too early to tell.  Stay tuned.

Lettuce and Pickles

Posted by Cutler on January 09, 2007
Iraq / 3 Comments

Iraqi oil is back in the news.

The most recent flurry of chatter was prompted by an article in the Independent on Sunday entitled, “The Future of Iraq: The Spoils of War.”

The central focus of the article is on a draft hydrocarbons law that has the Iraqi oil industry operate under production sharing agreements or PSAs that provide very generous terms of international oil companies.

An article in the Turkish Daily News suggests that the PSA terms in the draft law will be extraordinarily generous:

According to the Production Sharing Agreement (PSA) system to be invoked by the draft, companies will have the right to retain 75 percent of their annual income from Iraqi oilfields, until they match their oil production costs. After then they will be able to pocket 20 percent of the annual income. Experts point to the fact that this is double normal market rates.

The Iraqi oil story is extremely import, but the “news” is not the PSA system.  I discussed negotiations over PSA terms in a couple of October posts (here and here).  Greg Muttittt and others made news with the PSA story back in November 2005 with a report entitled “Crude Designs.”

The centrality of oil to US plans in Iraq cannot be overstated.  I have always liked Chomsky’s way of framing that part of the story:

[W]e are under a rigid doctrine in the West, a religious fanaticism, that says we must believe that the United States would have invaded Iraq even if its main product was lettuce and pickles… Well, you know, if you have three gray cells functioning, you know that that’s perfect nonsense. The U.S. invaded Iraq because it has enormous oil resources, mostly untapped, and it’s right in the heart of the world’s energy system.

The problem, however, has always been and continues to be for the Bush administration to get the domestic Iraqi politics and regional geo-politics aligned in such a way to get the deals done and the oil flowing.

On this score, it should be noted that a draft law–even if adopted by the current Iraqi parliament–does not yet constitute “success.”  Here is one sober industry reaction (Simon Wardell, “Draft Oil Law: New Iraqi Law Will Reportedly Allow Large-Scale Investment by Western Oil Majors,” Global Insight Daily Analysis, January 8, 2007):

[T]he legislation is just the first of several steps which will be required before any wells are sunk. The security situation still presents a major challenge which no major is currently willing to face. While deals may be struck, they will be contingent upon an improvement in the security situation. There will also be major risks in pouring capital into Iraq’s oil sector due to the political instability. Even if the security picture improves, governments may change, and the status of PSAs may come under question at a later date, as they have in Russia. The lack of a political consensus in Iraq makes this risk more significant

The crux of the matter is that the political stability favored, if not required, by the Oil Majors was critically upset the day in May 2003 that the Bush administration adopted its de-Baathification policy and thoroughly undermined by the three major votes of 2005 that handed political power to Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds.

From the perspective of the foreign policy establishment, the preferred path for political stability in Iraq was then and continues to be benign dictatorship under Sunni minority control.

The proper model for a simple US oil grab is the Libya deal, not Iraq.  Saddamism without Saddam.

So the Bush administration has been scrambling to construct some kind of political stability, not only within Iraq but within the region, that would allow the oil to flow.

The News from Kurdistan

One key sticking point has been the locus of control over new oil field development within Iraq.  In other words, who gets to sign the contracts?

The Kurds have always hoped to win control for the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq–and to include the oil-rich city of Kirkuk within that regional entity.

The news of an oil “breakthrough” in Iraq is mostly on the Kurdish front.

Shiite forces abanonded the Kurds on this issue.

Now, the Kurds appear to have conceded the point.

In late December 2006, the Kurdish Globe reported:

Oil has been a major issue dividing Kurdish and Iraqi authorities in post-war Iraq. KRG says it is constitutionally allowed to drill for oil in areas under its control, but Iraqi oil officials have threatened that KRG’s oil deals will not be “valid.”

Most of the oil wells are in southern Iraq, and the oil law allows KRG to talk with companies and make deals for oil production,” [Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan] Barzani said…

According to preliminary agreements between the KRG and federal authorities, a representative from the Baghdad government will attend talks between the KRG and oil firms. Once the KRG reaches a deal with a company to drill for oil in Kurdistan, the contract will be sent to Baghdad for assessment and approval by an Iraqi government committee. The contract will then be returned to the KRG and it will have 60 days to sign it…

“There needs to be some criteria according to which the (oil) contracts are investigated so as to know if there is any corruption in the deals or to what extent the company will implement its obligations,” Barzani said.

Note well: this is Barzani’s concession speech and it will not likely be greeted with thunderous applause in Kurdistan.  Barzani’s two justifications for centralized control–that most of the wells are in southern Iraq (and therefore a source of wealth for Kurds only under centralization) and that central authorities need to be able to investigate corruption–are very thin fig leaves, given the history of Kurdish demands for autonomy.  Look for an internal Kurdish split that would challenge Barzani for “selling out” the Kurds.

The Kurdish concession has regional implications insofar as Turkey has been firm in its opposition to Kurdish autonomy.  Indeed, just as the Kurds were conceding the point, Kirkuk oil began to flow in the pipeline to Turkey’s port of Ceyhan.  Perhaps it is no coincidence.

Note, too, that the future of Kurdish control of Kirkuk also looks increasingly fragile, with John McCain now leading a campaign to delay a referendum on Kirkuk that would likely establish Kurdish control of the city.

In the last instance, these Kurdish concessions are part of a larger campaign to restore centralized national political control in Iraq.

On the oil front, centralization is likely intended to appease Sunni rejectionists.  It will also please Muqtada al-Sadr who is a strident critic of Kurdish control of Kirkuk and of decentralization, more generally.  Is Sadr willing to trade privatization (i.e., production sharing agreements) for centralization?

If so, then the US will have effectively exploited the threat of Kurdish regional PSAs to extract comparable concessions from Iraqi nationalists.

Same as It Ever Was

Posted by Cutler on January 08, 2007
Iraq / 1 Comment

Bush’s Iraq Policy Review looks set to announce that on the political front in Iraq there will be no change, even as the administration contemplates a military escalation.

After floating some very radical ideas for abandoning “national reconciliation” and outreach to Iraqi Sunni insurgents–the so-called “80 percent Solution“–the Bush administration now appears to be ready for more of the same.

Robin Wright of the Washington Post reports:

During its two-month interagency review, the Bush administration has struggled the most to come up with proposals to jump-start the stalled political process in Iraq, according to U.S. officials and Western diplomats. The fate of the revised strategy will be determined as much by new movement on Iraq’s combustible political front as by success on the battlefield, administration officials said.

But the emerging package looks slim and, absent last-minute additions, appears to be more of the same, according to sources who have been briefed.

The centerpiece of the political plan is the creation of a national reconciliation government that would bring together the two main Shiite parties with the two largest Kurdish parties and the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials. The goal is to marginalize Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the largest and most powerful Shiite militia and head of a group that has 30 seats in parliament and five cabinet posts.

To ensure participation of Sunni moderates, the Bush administration is pressing the Maliki government to take three other major steps: Amend the constitution to address Sunni concerns, pass a law on the distribution of Iraq’s oil revenue and change the ruling that forbids the participation of former Baath Party officials.

Been there.  Done that.

Or, more to the point: Been there.  Tried to do that.  Was blocked by Grand Ayatollah Sistani who allegedly refused to allow the US to marginalize Sadr.

Little wonder, with word that the US is determined to pursue this course, that Sadr has gone to meet with Sistani for clarification and confirmation of support.

So, is the US prepared to move without the blessing of Sistani?  Good luck with that.

Meanwhile, the same old political battles will certainly accompany the proposed escalation on the security front.

The military brass is spoiling for a fight with Shiite militias, if not Sadr himself.  Here is the Washington Post report on the political contours of the US military surge:

A top U.S. commander in Iraq said Sunday that previous attempts to halt sectarian killings in Baghdad had failed in part because of a shortage of Iraqi troops and a tight focus on Sunni Arab neighborhoods, and that those lessons would be incorporated into a new strategy to slow the violence in the capital.

Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the number two commander in Iraq, declined to discuss a proposed surge of thousands of additional U.S. and Iraqi troops in Baghdad, saying he preferred to wait for President Bush to outline the policy. But he said he wanted his forces to begin with a push against both Sunni and Shiite fighters

“You have to go after both Sunni and Shia neighborhoods,” he said. “Together Forward was mostly focused on Sunni neighborhoods, and we’ve got to do both.”

Reuters suggests that Odierno hedges a bit on Sadr and the Mahdi Army:

Odierno said U.S. forces would leave dealing with Sadr to Iraqi authorities. “I’m not sure we take him down,” he said.

“There are some extreme elements (of the Mehdi Army) … and we will go after them. I will allow the government to decide whether (Sadr) is part of it or not. He is currently working within the political system.”

The military brass consistently emphasized a split between Sadr and his followers.

In any event, some of Prime Minister Maliki’s aides are already throwing cold water on Odierno’s plan for a more balanced security crackdown in Baghdad.

Hassan al-Suneid, a key aid and member of al-Maliki’s Dawa Party, said the Iraqi leader had committed 20,000 soldiers to the operation that would call upon American troops and airpower only when needed…

Al-Suneid, who is also a member of parliament, said the new drive to free Baghdad from the grip of sectarian violence would focus initially on Sunni insurgent strongholds in western Baghdad.

Indeed, the Shiite appetite for a decidedly sectarian form of counter-insurgency seems undiminished.  As Robert Collier reports in the San Francisco Chronicle:

For their part, Shiite hard-liners also say they support reconciliation efforts. But in interviews with The Chronicle, they called for U.S. officials to stop advocating the inclusion of Sunnis and to give military backing to a full-scale Shiite offensive in Sunni areas. These Shiites described their opponents as “takfiri Baathists,” combining the term for Sunni religious extremists with the name of Hussein’s secular-leaning party — two groups that most outside observers say are often at each other’s throats.

“The American government must give the Iraqi government complete sovereignty, which means that the Iraqi army will have the authority to strike the takfiri Baathists with an iron hand, without any interference from the Americans,” said Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia that has been largely incorporated into the Interior Ministry and, along with al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, is widely blamed for death-squad attacks on Sunnis.

Many al-Sadr followers, including the Mahdi Army, appear markedly more sectarian than their leader.

As I noted in a previous post, there are competing conceptions about the purpose of a military “surge” in Iraq.

The Shiite visions for Baghdad articulated in Robert Collier’s report seem to have more in common with Reuel Marc Gerecht’s views on counter-insurgency than with Odierno’s.

Right Zionists like Gerecht are still looking for “victory” in Iraq.  [Update: new Gerecht essay emphasizes his basis for hope, albeit not on the basis of the path set to be adopted by the White House.]

Odierno, not so much.  Reuters reports:

U.S. Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, in charge of combat forces in Iraq, said on Sunday U.S. commanders had offered several recommendations and some did not involve more troops….

He also sought to play down U.S. public expectations of what could be achieved over insurgents, saying an overwhelming “77-7″ win — to use a sports metaphor — “ain’t going to happen“.”It’s a different concept. There will be no victory parade when we leave here. There never was going to be,” he said.

Oh.

Surge Protection

Posted by Cutler on January 06, 2007
Iraq, Right Zionists / 1 Comment

Even as the Democratic leadership declares its opposition to a “surge” in Iraq, it should also be noted that not all Neocons agree on military tactics and there are significant political and strategic divisions among those who make the tactical case for more troops in Iraq.  The debate about military escalation sometimes conceals more than it reveals about serious political disagreements among foreign policy elites about the balance of forces in Iraq and in the Gulf.

Neocon Splits on Military Strategy

As Peter Spiegel suggested in his Los Angeles Times report on Neocons and the surge, there has always been a split between those who backed Rumsfeld’s “military transformation” vision and a “light footprint” strategy in Iraq and those who favor boots on the ground.

Some leading neoconservatives do not embrace the troop surge proposal.

Wolfowitz, for instance, ridiculed the notion that more troops would be needed to secure Iraq than were used in the invasion.

And Richard N. Perle, a former top advisor to the Pentagon who also advocated for smaller troop numbers at the time of the invasion, is known to be skeptical of the idea of a surge.

The plan’s advocates acknowledge the split.

“Before the war, I was arguing for a quarter of a million troops in expectations we’d be there five or 10 years,” said Gary J. Schmitt, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute who has worked closely with Kristol and Kagan. “Richard Perle, obviously somebody else who’s thought of as a neocon, thought we should go in” with far fewer U.S. forces.

These splits go way back.

Kristol and Kagan backed McCain in 2000, not Bush.  Perle and Wolfowitz were on the Bush team from the start.

For the McCain crowd, the focus is on the direct demonstration of American power.

The Right Zionist “family” around Perle–the authors of “A Clean Break“–is more focused on Israel and the exercise of military power in support of strategic alliances with indigenous “clients.”

Whose Military Escalation?

Even among those who currently champion an escalation, there appear to be some significant disagreements about the nature and purpose of such a surge.

The key split is between those who link a surge with a renewed effort to crush the Sunni insurgency in support of the Shia and those who think a surge should be used to crush Sadr’s Shiite militia, even as the US continues to try to court the Sunnis.

Right now, all those folks seem to hanging out together at the American Enterprise Institute.  But at some point, the differences will be come more visible.

Here is Gerecht at AEI on the purpose of a surge:

Let us be clear: The Sunni insurgency and holy war against the Shiite community cannot be broken unless the cities of Baghdad and Ramadi are pacified. Unless these two towns are cleared and held, there is no way any Shiite government in Baghdad can begin the process of slowly neutralizing the murderous Shiite militias that now operate often with government complicity. The militias have gained increasing support from the Shiite community because they are the only effective means of neighborhood protection and offensive operations against Sunni insurgents and holy warriors…

And the Americans, who started withdrawing from Baghdad’s streets in the fall of 2003 (perhaps the most catastrophic decision ever made by General Abizaid), have retreated further into large, well-fortified bases. Revenge killings of innocent Sunnis are an ugly and unavoidable outgrowth of this process. They cannot be stopped unless the United States and the Iraqi government first significantly diminish the Sunni Arab menace–that is, clear and hold Baghdad and Ramadi.

But McCain (with Lieberman) was also on hand recently at AEI.  The Washington Post transcript of the event suggests that McCain’s surge is intended to serve a different purpose.

A troop surge is necessary but not sufficient for American success in Iraq. By controlling the violence, we can pave the way for a political settlement. Once the government wields greater authority, however, Iraqi leaders must take significant steps on their own.

These include a commitment to go after the militias, a reconciliation process for insurgents and Baathists, more equitable distribution of government resources, provincial elections that will bring Sunnis into government, and a large increase in employment- generating economic projects.

McCain is not alone in his focus on Sadr.  The military is itching for a fight with Sadr.

These are potentially very different surges, the “success” of which would be judged very differently by different US factions.

Cheney: White Hawk Down?

Posted by Cutler on January 05, 2007
Iraq, Right Arabists, Right Zionists / 1 Comment

Bush’s personnel shuffles provide some interesting clues about new power dynamics in Washington, but I think it remains too early to predict a clear, uncontested direction for US foreign policy.

Cheney Defeat: Negroponte is Not Eric Edelman

Negroponte is taking the deputy job at Foggy Bottom.  One precarious but potentially interesting way to understand the meaning of the Negroponte shift is to ask who didn’t get the deputy job.  Back in 2004, Al Kamen at the Washington Post spread the rumor that Cheney wanted to put his National Security deputy Eric Edelman in the number two slot:

The latest name du jour for deputy secretary of state is Eric S. Edelman, now ambassador to Turkey, who is seen as someone — perhaps the only one on the planet — who can comfortably straddle all the relevant political worlds. He’s a career foreign service officer, a former ambassador to Finland who also worked for then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz and for Clinton Ambassador-at-Large Strobe Talbott.

But he also worked for Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney from 1990 to 1993 and for Vice President Cheney from 2001 to 2003 and with Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice frequently when he represented Cheney at top-level meetings.  Edelman was sworn in to his current job by, of course, Cheney.

Helene Cooper at the New York Times suggests that Cheney has wanted to get Edelman a spot at State since Rice’s arrival.

Vice President Dick Cheney wanted her to appoint his former deputy national security adviser, Eric S. Edelman, as her political director; she balked and instead chose R. Nicholas Burns, a friend who had worked for her at the security council during the administration of the first President Bush.

No dice.  Rest assured, Edelman found a home at the Pentagon where he replaced Douglas Feith as the number three civilian.  Gates has made no move to dump Edelman.

Edelman’s “failure” to get the nod from Rice surely seems to mark a loss for Cheney.

Cheney Defeat: Khalilzad is Not Victoria Nulan

News reports suggest that Zalmay Khalilzad will replace John Bolton as US ambassador to the United Nations.

Al Kamen’s rumor mill had spread the word that Victoria Nuland was a leading candidate for that post.

At the United Nations, where there is no U.S. ambassador, idle chatterers are talking about Victoria Nuland, now ambassador to NATO, as a possible choice to succeed John R. Bolton. Nuland, who is a career Foreign Service officer and is married to Robert Kagan, a contributor to the Washington Post op-ed page, was top foreign policy adviser to Vice President Cheney and before that an aide to Clinton confidante Strobe Talbott when he was deputy secretary of state. Well, the bases can’t get more covered than that.

If Kamen’s idle chatter means anything, then the Khalilzad appointment might also be coded as a loss for Cheney.

Cheney Defeat: Ryan Crocker is Not… A Neocon

Word of Khalilzad’s move out of Iraq has been rumored for some time, as has his replacement by Ryan Crocker.

When Crocker was appointed to the Coalition Provisional Authority back in 2002, the Middle East Economic Digest (”Revealed–The Seven Men Who Will Run Iraq,” June 6, 2003) described Crocker as “A career US foreign service official and Arabist.”

Right Zionist Michael Rubin had this to say about Crocker in May 2004:

Of the first 18 senior advisers deployed to Baghdad, none were from the Defense Department; perhaps half were State Department bureau of Near Eastern affairs ambassadors or policy-planning staff members…
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ryan Crocker became both Garner and Bremer’s governance director. He handpicked the political team, staffing it almost exclusively with career Near Eastern Affairs diplomats and members of the Policy Planning Staff.

Back in 2003, Crocker had been rumored to be the leading candidate to serve as US Ambassador to Iraq. This brought howls of protest from Right Zionists. In an article entitled “State Department Giving Baghdad to House of Saud?,” Joel Mowbray had nothing kind to say about Crocker:

State is already placing—or attempting to place—pro-Saudi individuals in important positions in a post-Saddam Iraq:… State’s top pick for ambassador to the post-Saddam Iraq is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ryan Crocker… Crocker will undoubtedly run into opposition from the White House, where the President’s vision of a democratic Iraq is diametrically opposed to Crocker’s view of the Arab world.

There are no public signs of tension between Crocker and Cheney, nor does it seem that Cheney allies ever publicly floated an alternative.  Nevertheless, it is probably worth noting: Crocker is no friend of Cheney’s Neocons.

Neocons: Did Petraeus Betray Us?

Lieutenant General David Petraeus has been tapped to serve as the top US commander in Iraq.

Petraeus is going to be very popular with lots of folks, but not Neocons and counterinsurgency hawks.

Right Zionist Michael Rubin has concerns about Petraeus:

Petraeus is highly-respected and media-savvy. However, his record is uncertain. While it is be important to win the support of the local population, it is also important to differentiate between what the local population wants, and what the squeaky wheels demand. Empowering extremists is not a good strategy. By reintegrating Islamists and Baathists into sensitive positions in Mosul, Petraeus bought short-term stability to his area of operation at the expense of long-term security. He also championed outreach to Syria, at one point bragging to a visiting delegation about the increase of cross-border trade. Such trust backfired. That said, his work getting the Iraqi army training program off-the-ground was impressive.

Ralph Peters at the New York Post offers up some similar criticism.

Regaining control of Baghdad – after we threw it away – will require the defiant use of force. Negotiations won’t do it. Cultural awareness isn’t going to turn this situation around (we need to stop pandering to our enemies and defeat them, thanks). We insist it’s all about politics and try to placate everybody, while terrorists, insurgents and militias slaughter the innocent in the name of their god and their tribe…

In my contacts with Petraeus, we’ve sometimes agreed and sometimes argued. But we diverged profoundly on one point: The counterinsurgency doctrine produced under his direction remains far too mired in failed 20th-century models. Winning hearts and minds sounds great, but it’s useless when those hearts and minds turn up dead the next morning.

Cheney Down for the Count?

So, if all of this “personnel politics” runs against the grain of Cheney’s agenda, does that mean the Vice President has lost control of the ship of state?

I wouldn’t bet on it.

Negroponte’s New Job

Posted by Cutler on January 04, 2007
Iraq / No Comments

Intelligence Czar John Negroponte will leave his post to become Deputy Secretary of State, the State Department’s second-ranking official.

It is too early to know why Negroponte is accepting a demotion, but speculation runs along some familiar lines.

The New York Times suggests that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has essentially recruited Negroponte for the job:

[A]dministration officials say Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been trying to recruit him to bring more Iraq expertise to her office…

Negroponte’s move to the State Department has been rumored for months. Rice was pushing to bring Negroponte in as her deputy…

The move may be a sign that the administration is looking for more sweeping changes to its Iraq strategy…

It might be more accurate to say Rice is trying to add more “heft” to her office in the hope of winning a factional battle for the direction of Iraq strategy.

Negroponte is going to State in order to help Rice battle Cheney, and perhaps prepare to take over the reins should Rice depart Foggy Bottom.

Here is one account of the factional battle lines from a December 5, 2006 Insight Magazine article:

The White House has been examining a proposal by James Baker to launch a Middle East peace effort without Israel.

The peace effort would begin with a U.S.-organized conference, dubbed Madrid-2, and contain such U.S. adversaries as Iran and Syria….

“As Baker sees this, the conference would provide a unique opportunity for the United States to strike a deal without Jewish pressure,” an official said. “This has become the most hottest proposal examined by the foreign policy people over the last month.”

Officials said Mr. Baker’s proposal, reflected in the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, has been supported by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns and National Intelligence Director John Negroponte. The most controversial element in the proposal, they said, was Mr. Baker’s recommendation for the United States to woo Iran and Syria.

The “heft” in all this is to take on Cheney.  Seymour Hersh reported in his late November 2006 New Yorker essay, “The Next Act“:

A retired four-star general who worked closely with the first Bush Administration told me that… [for] Scowcroft, Baker, the elder Bush… [the issue] is how to preserve the Republican agenda. The Old Guard wants to isolate Cheney and give their girl, Condoleezza Rice”—the Secretary of State—“a chance to perform.” The combination of Scowcroft, Baker, and the senior Bush working together is, the general added, “tough enough to take on Cheney. One guy can’t do it.”

It seems like Negroponte’s new job is to help take on Cheney.

Bi-Partisan Bush

Posted by Cutler on January 03, 2007
Dem Zionists, Iraq, Right Zionists / 2 Comments

George W. Bush has an Op-Ed–“What the Congress Can Do for America“–in today’s Wall Street Journal.

The essay is a plea for a level of bi-partisan cooperation and common ground that will preserve some relevance for Bush presidency.

I will have the privilege of working with [the 110th Congress] for the next two years — one quarter of my presidency, plenty of time to accomplish important things for the American people.

It is also a preview of some domestic economic policy themes that will likely be featured in Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address (spending restraint and entitlement reform; no new taxes).

The missive is also clearly designed to make the case for a military “surge” in Iraq:

In the days ahead, I will be addressing our nation about a new strategy to help the Iraqi people gain control of the security situation and hasten the day when the Iraqi government gains full control over its affairs. Ultimately, Iraqis must resolve the most pressing issues facing them. We can’t do it for them.

But we can help Iraq defeat the extremists inside and outside of Iraq — and we can help provide the necessary breathing space for this young government to meet its responsibilities. If democracy fails and the extremists prevail in Iraq, America’s enemies will be stronger, more lethal, and emboldened by our defeat. Leaders in both parties understand the stakes in this struggle. We now have the opportunity to build a bipartisan consensus to fight and win the war.

The entire emphasis of the “new strategy” is on the so-called security front.  No new formula for national reconciliation, etc. in the political domain.  This is about boots on the ground and–I suspect–aggressive counter-insurgency that recalls the anti-Baathist military operations from the summer and early fall of 2003.

Also, note well: “defeat the extremists inside and outside of Iraq.”  Which extremists “outside of Iraq” does Bush have in mind?  Extremists in Syria? Iran?

A Mandate for War?

Now, according to Bush, in light of the mid-term election victories by the Democrats there is an “opportunity to build a bipartisan consensus to fight and win the war.”

Bush may be misreading the implicit message of the election, but he is not necessarily misreading the Democrats.

There will be some bi-partisan resistance.  2008 Democratic Presidential hopeful John Edwards looks set, for now, to run Left of Hillary on Iraq.  He has denounced the surge and dubbed it the “McCain Doctrine.”  And some in the GOP will balk.

But one should not underestimate the level of “bi-partisan” support for a pro-Shiite military surge that aims to return to the original Right Zionist vision for post-invasion Iraq.

Right Zionists like Lieberman and McCain will be touted as “centrists” and “moderates”, even as they gladly inherit the war–surge and all–from President Bush.

Dangerous times, these.

Cheney and Sistani

Posted by Cutler on January 02, 2007
Iraq, Right Zionists / 1 Comment

In a preview of 2007, the Financial Times asks how Vice President Cheney will fare in the new year.  There will be some trouble for Cheney:

Dick Cheney has forged a reputation as the most powerful but also least visible vice-president in recent history. In the next few weeks, however, he will be forced to fight some of his battles in the open – in the courtroom and on Capitol Hill.

The first test will come in the criminal trial of his former chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, charged with lying to a grand jury during an investigation into how a CIA agent’s name was leaked. The trial, due to begin in two weeks, is likely to set an ignominious precedent when Mr Cheney becomes the first vice-president to testify in a trial.

Mr Cheney’s legal team are also steeling themselves for the launch of legislative investigations by the new Democrat-controlled Congress.

Neither of these external threats will likely do much damage.  The real question is Cheney’s role inside the White House.

His influence has never come from his popularity outside the White House, but from his access within it. That has not changed. Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff, told the FT: “He is a welcome participant in every meeting the president is in, he sits in on almost all the policy meetings…

Even so, there are signs that the president’s confidence in his judgment has waned. He was cut out of the decision to oust his ally Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defence, a move he vigorously opposed. “They really are genuinely close friends but the president doesn’t always take his advice,” said Mr Bolten.

The FT mentions that Cheney may lose some influence to Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson on question of economic policy, including Social Security reform.  One might add China policy to that list.

But the FT ultimately dodges the crucial question: does Cheney call the shots on US foreign policy in the Middle East, especially Iraq and Iran?

If Bush “doesn’t always take [Cheney’s] advice,” as Bolten says, neither does he always take the advice of Right Arabists like James Baker.

The big post-mid-term election story of 2006 was the unexpectedly cold White House reception given to Baker’s Iraq Study Group Report (for some background on the “push back” against Baker, see previous posts here, here, here, and here).

Cheney Drives the Bus

Until Bush formally announces the results of his Iraq Policy Review, it will remain difficult to discern the course of US policy ahead.  Nevertheless, there may be some hints in the news, all of which point to Cheney at the wheel.

The strongest signals of late seem to indicate that the “Shiite Option” in Iraq may still have some legs, even as this is linked to an aggressive policy toward Syria and Iran.

If so, an early casualty will be US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

Much of Khalilzad’s “timetable” for Iraq was written into the Iraq Study Group Report and his tenure as Ambassador has corresponded with US efforts to court Sunni political support and move against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army.

Sistani: Foil to US Occupiers?

It was Khalilzad who was most closely associated with plans for the formation of a new “moderate” Iraqi government that would see Prime Minister Maliki dump Sadr and align himself more closely with Sunni forces.

This idea hit a major hurdle when Grand Ayatollah Sistani allegedly rejected the plan in late December.

Helena Cobban at “Just World News” has interpreted this move by Sistani as one more instance in which the Grand Ayatollah has again “foiled” the US occupiers.  A similar analysis accompanied the Iraqi elections of 2005 when Swopa claimed that Sistani had forced the to hold elections that Bush never wanted.

There is more than a bit of truth to these claims.  But it is also worth noting that in both instances Sistani’s actions represented a defeat for Right Arabists in the Bush administration but were quite compatible with the path promoted by Right Zionists like AEI’s Reuel Marc Gerecht.

Gerecht celebrated the 2005 Iraqi elections for all the same reasons Right Arabists opposed them and more recently he warned against Khalilzad’s effort to split the Shia.  In an essay entitled, “In Iraq, Let’s Fight One War at a Time,” Gerecht argued:

In Baghdad and in Washington, officials privately and the press publicly suggest that the Bush administration would prefer that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki fell… Mr. Maliki is politically too dependent, the reasoning goes, on the young Shiite militia leader Moktada al-Sadr, a scion of a prestigious clerical family and the boss of a pivotal bloc of votes in Iraq’s Parliament…

Since President Bush is now immersed in a top-to-bottom Iraq review, in which a substantial surge of American soldiers into Baghdad seems ever more likely and the Army is again seriously considering directly confronting Mr. Sadr, the appeal of Mr. Mahdi and the Supreme Council may grow in Washington and Baghdad.

If so, the administration should nip in the bud such inclinations. Changing the Shiite parts of the Iraqi government and quickly taking on Mr. Sadr would do nothing to end the Sunni insurgency and the holy war of foreign jihadists against the new Iraq

[S]ome Shiites, and perhaps most Sunnis, may threaten to walk out of Iraq’s government and forsake reconciliation talks if the Americans get serious about pacifying Baghdad and the insurgency elsewhere. Let them. If the city’s and country’s Shiites, who represent about 65 percent of Iraq’s population, see that the Americans are committed to countering the insurgency, any protest from Mr. Maliki or call to arms by Mr. Sadr will have increasingly less power.

No, it won’t be easy–but with American and Iraqi troops all over Baghdad and daily life returning to some normality, the situation will certainly be more manageable than what we confront now. The politics of peaceful Shiite consensus, which is what Grand Ayatollah Sistani has tried to advance since 2003, could again rapidly gain ground

The key for America is the same as it has been for years: to clear and hold the Sunni areas of Baghdad and the so-called Sunni triangle to the north. There will probably be no political solution among the Iraqi factions to save American troops from the bulk of this task. The sooner we start in Baghdad, the better the odds are that the radicalization of the Iraqi Shiites can be halted.

The Shiite Option in 2007

There may already be signs that the Bush administration is preparing to pursue this course.

The execution of Saddam Hussein might be one place to begin looking, despite some protestations from Khalilzad.

Then there is the news of a US military raid on the offices of Saleh al-Mutlak, an ex-Baathist Sunni politician once actively courted by Condoleezza Rice.

And National Security Council Adviser Stephen Hadley floated a pro-Shia trial balloon.  The New York Times welcomes the new year with a story that features Hadley reflecting on the failures of recent US policy and preparing the way for an anti-Sunni military “surge” in Iraq:

We could not clear and hold,” Stephen J. Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, acknowledged in a recent interview, in a frank admission of how American strategy had crumbled. “Iraqi forces were not able to hold neighborhoods, and the effort to build did not show up. The sectarian violence continued to mount, so we did not make the progress on security we had hoped. We did not bring the moderate Sunnis off the fence, as we had hoped. The Shia lost patience, and began to see the militias as their protectors.”…

In early August, the United States was forced to reverse course and add troops in Baghdad. On reflection, Mr. Hadley said, “Finally the patience of the Shia had worn thin,” and, “By the time the unity government took over the cycle of sectarian violence had begun. And they and we have not been able to get ahead of it .”

The Washington Post offers a similar profile of Khalilzad’s failure to gauge Shia impatience:

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad declared the Shiite militias the most significant threat to Iraq’s stability, replacing the Sunni insurgency and al-Qaeda. Frustrated by the Shiite government’s inability to govern and bring security, U.S. officials began pressuring Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to dismantle the militias. They zeroed in on the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, upon whom Maliki depends for power…

Shiite politicians and analysts say Khalilzad is backing the Sunnis to limit the power of Shiites in the government…

“We know the U.S. is under great pressure from Arabic and Islamic countries, who are Sunni,” said Ridha Jawad Taqi, a member of parliament with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite party with strong ties to Tehran. “They fear the growing power of the Shia inside Iraq.”

“The Americans have a wrong reading of Iraq,” said Hasan Suneid, a member of the Shiite Dawa party and a close aide to Maliki. “And who is responsible for this reading? It is the diplomatic channel, that is, Khalilzad.”

The idea of a military surge in Iraq is already generating Republican resistance within the Senate.  Any move to dump Khalilzad and tilt US policy toward Iraqi Shiite political dominance will likely generate similar howls of protest from Right Arabists in the James Baker crowd.

But it would represent an enormous victory for Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the Right Zionists who have long pinned their hopes on him as the key to “dual rollback” in Iraq and Iran.