Two developments on Iraq Wednesday—one mining the depths of cynicism, the other … well, it’s unclear just yet.
The unabashedly cynical move was Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s address before a joint session of Congress. Either the address was written by White House handlers (as was a similar oration two years ago by his predecessor, Iyad Allawi) or Maliki has hired speechwriters who know exactly how to say what American legislators want to hear.
The other move was the decision, reported in today’s papers, to redeploy 4,000 U.S. combat troops and 400 military police from western Iraq into Baghdad, to quell the sectarian violence that has inflamed the capital in recent weeks. Whether this move will calm the capital, much less help stabilize Iraqi politics, depends in part on what the troops and MPs end up doing. Will they just “drive around Baghdad” (the term even has a jaundiced acronym, “DAB”) to announce their “presence”? Or will they get in the middle of fights, try to break them up, even take sides? And if so, what consequences will that have?
First, Maliki’s speech, which he must have read half-ashamed, half-relieved that almost nobody back home would be listening. It was a speech right out of George W. Bush’s playbook. It painted the war in Iraq as a struggle between democracy and terrorism. “Iraq is free,” he said, “and the terrorists cannot stand this.” Those who killed thousands of Americans on Sept. 11 are “the same terrorists” as those killing innocent Iraqis today. “Iraqis are your allies in the war on terror,” and Iraq is this war’s “front line.”
He expressed gratitude to Congress for standing with the Iraqi people—a line that drew the loudest and longest of several standing ovations (self-righteousness being the favorite sentiment on Capitol Hill). He described Iraq as a country where people “rely on dialogue to resolve their differences,” where “women are equal to men” (in the constitution anyway), and where he plans very soon to establish a free-market economy and to loosen restrictions on foreign investment. These fairy tales, too, triggered what the transcripts of speeches before the Soviet Union’s Central Committee used to call “stormy applause.”
Maliki gave not a hint that most of the violence gripping Iraq these days has nothing to do with al-Qaida-type terrorism—and everything to do with sectarian conflicts, if not outright civil war, between and among the native Sunni and Shiite Arabs.
Did Bush aides write the speech? White House spokesman Tony Snow said at his daily press conference that there had been “conversations about the speech” ahead of time—from which one could reasonably infer that they engaged, at least, in heavy editing.
Obviously, Maliki’s main task was to get back “on message” and to erase the bad impression he’d made last week when he called on the world “to take quick stands to stop the Israeli aggression” in Lebanon. Leading members of Congress threatened to boycott Maliki’s speech—and, who knows, might go further and start opposing U.S. aid to Maliki’s government—unless he took back his words or at least condemned Hezbollah, too.
Maliki didn’t backpedal. Even politicians have lines they will not cross, and apparently this is one of his. As Juan Cole, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan, notes in his blog today, Maliki’s party, the Iraqi Dawa, helped create the Lebanese Hezbollah in the early 1980s. Maliki was in charge of Dawa’s cell in Damascus, which was “intimately involved” with Hezbollah. Cole writes that he doesn’t know what Maliki was doing there, beyond trying to overthrow Saddam. But, he asks, did U.S. legislators “really think he was going to condemn Hezbollah and take Israeli’s side? And if he did, do they think that the Shiite religious parties that backed him would let him stay in office?”
To explain all this would be to immerse American lawmakers in the mind-twisting complexities of Middle Eastern politics and thus distract them from the Manichean concepts—good vs. evil, freedom vs. terrorism—that keep the troops and money flowing. So, Maliki met with the congressional leadership and with the White House, offered sotto voce assurances, and delivered a speech that would make them all feel good about themselves. It often works.
Back in the real Iraq, where Sunnis and Shiites kill each other daily (with no need for help from al-Qaida), U.S. commanders have decided to redeploy 8,000 troops—half of them American, half Iraqi—from the Anbar province to Baghdad.
This doesn’t seem to be a merely “symbolic” force. Michael Gordon reports in today’s New York Times that the commanders plan to implement a classic counterinsurgency strategy known as the “ink-spot” theory. Grab a piece of terrain, sweep out the insurgents (or, in this case, the militias), stabilize the area, provide basic services to win support from the residents, then move on to the next chunk of terrain, leaving behind a core of security forces to maintain the peace.
Normally, the theory envisions this sort of campaign spreading across an entire country. The novelty of this version is that it’s to be applied, neighborhood by neighborhood, across a single city, albeit a large one of 7 million people. That doesn’t make it any easier, though. As Gordon notes, the theory won’t work unless the Iraqi police can keep the peace—and Maliki’s government can restore basic services—after the troops move on to the next sector. But the police are riddled with militiamen, and no government has been able to restore services in the three years of occupation.
There’s an additional problem. It’s one thing for U.S. soldiers to attack insurgents who are trying to topple the Iraqi government. It’s another thing to attack militias of competing religious groups that have relations with various factions of the government. If a civil war is brewing, the new U.S. strategy (and that is what this step represents) might have a calming effect—or it might toss us straight into the storm. Like everything else we’ve done in this war, it’s a gamble.