Ian Bremmer on Iraq: Bullseye

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3) Iraq

In 2008, Iraq will show that the United States has for the second time gotten the military decisions right but the politics wrong, with implications not just for Iraq but for the broader Middle East.

When the U.S.-led coalition removed Saddam Hussein from power, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s strategy of using minimal ground forces, massive air attack, and a lightning-quick drive of heavy armor toward Baghdad led to a six-week war with limited U.S. and Iraqi casualties and the capture/arrest of almost all senior Baathist officials, including Hussein, in relatively short order. Yet the Defense Department also led the charge on nation- and state-building, which rested on misguided efforts to transform the Iraqi central government into a democracy virtually overnight. I’ve become fond of thinking that in many ways Rumsfeld was one of America’s most effective defense secretaries in recent times . . . and by far its worst secretary of state. Unfortunately, he was intent on doing both jobs.

That much is history. But in 2008, this dynamic is unfolding again. Following a strongly criticized Bush decision to ignore the bipartisan (and exhaustively vetted) Baker-Hamilton plan and press ahead with a troop surge, it’s turned out that the American generals indeed knew what they were doing. More than 150,000 well-trained American troops, tens of thousands of well-paid mercenaries, the support of many tribal leaders (particularly in the north), billions of dollars of reconstruction aid, and a revamped counterinsurgency strategy on the ground have markedly improved security in much of the country. The troop surge has led radical Shiite cleric and militia leader Moqtadr al Sadr to stay on the sidelines – not risking confrontation with U.S. military power – and seriously degraded al-Qaida in Iraq’s capacity for attacks. All of this has meant fewer casualties – U.S. military, Iraqi military and Iraqi civilian.

But politically, the United States has actually lost ground. This is clearest in Baghdad, where Washington has all but lost its influence on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s administration – a stunning political fact given the extraordinary amount of cash and military support still funneled by the U.S. government into the country. This change became clear following Baghdad’s refusal to attend the Annapolis conference on the Middle East, despite direct lobbying by President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or to sign up for the American pact with Iraq’s Sunni tribal leaders to fight al-Qaida. The greatest political influence on Baghdad is presently Iran – a factor that will likely grow over time as Iraqi political actors await the withdrawal of American military forces and Washington loses the political will to provide economic support.

Which means that the military gains – though real and important – are temporary and cannot continue with a significant reduction in the American troop presence. U.S. domestic opposition to the war remains at its highest levels, and as the U.S. scales down its presence, the likelihood that the insurgency will grow precipitously is great. Sadr will stay on the sidelines until it’s safe to come out – but no longer. Ultimately, all this will likely produce a fragmentation of the country and a proxy war between Saudi-supported Sunni and Iranian-supported Shia, with the Kurds eventually going their own way. This makes Iraq increasingly less of a mess domestically but more a factor for regional instability throughout the Middle East. This will become increasingly evident in 2008.

Published in: on January 18, 2008 at 12:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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