Sunday, June 22, 2014

Anathema inamorata:
Iraq, Iran, the media and U.S. history repeating

THE GORDIAN knot of America’s misadventure in Iraq has re-knotted itself in a way that renounces the received wisdom about the United States’ relationship with its Sworn Nemesis, the Republic of Iran. A quick Google hunt of the phrase “enemy of my enemy is my friend” brings up a full few pages of links to recent stories, new work borrowing the phrase for use in a context whose sudden, tragic irony is inescapable.

You don’t even have to read the stories to know: the tables have turned on our relative certainties of who our friends are — or, if not friends, at least those adversaries whose interests improbably dovetail with our own.

The pending U.S. association with Iran was brought to you by the black-clad, masked Sunni operatives of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS (alternately, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL), who in the past months (and especially weeks) have swept from Syria into Iraq, crashing around the desert, slaughtering scores of captured Iraqi soldiers, intimidating the local populations, siphoning petrodollars from captured refineries, and looting banks of currency and gold bullion to the tune of more than a billion dollars.

Flush with cash, weapons, fundamentalist fervor and some of the American technology left in the hands of the Iraqi soldiers who abandoned their posts (and their uniforms), ISIS forces are continuing a lightning-fast drive toward Baghdad, with the apparent intent of toppling Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shia government has pledged to “liberate every inch” of land captured by the Sunni invaders.

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Maliki — who has cut Sunnis out of the Iraqi political process at every turn over eight years in office — is reaping the whirlwind, aggressively pursuing a strategy that, left unchecked or unchanged, will almost certainly ensure his transformation from the president of the Republic of Iraq to, in practical terms, not much more than the mayor of Baghdad.

“He isn’t making the gestures to Sunnis,” said David Rohde of Reuters, last week on MSNBC. “He’s deciding, essentially, to fight this out in a sectarian form, and it’ll lead to the division of the country. He can control Baghdad and the south, but not the areas he’s lost.”

“It’s a horrible thing that is happening. It is traumatic and horrible,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who commanded U.S. forces in northern Iraq in 2007 and 2008, told McClatchy. “But they knew it was happening. We tried to tell them this would happen unless they were more inclusive.”

Hertling said Iraq without al-Maliki might be an improvement.

“The trust between government and its forces and people is based on past behaviors and performance,” he said. “And in some circles, both inside and outside Iraq, Maliki has lost all trust.”

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IN OTHER ways, though, this Is bigger and more problematic than Maliki. Carne Ross, a former British diplomat who resigned over Britain’s role in the Iraq war, observed: “In a way, what we’re seeing is the epic playing out, the denouement of the neocon project in Iraq. In a sense, the post-invasion order that was established by the U.S. ... is collapsing.”

And in that collapse, in that vacuum, the same neocon voices and positions that pulled the United States into war in 2003 are rising again. They’re baaaack and singing the same old tune, but singing it in a mediasphere that’s more crowded (and by definition more open to rhetoric than to fact) than it ever was before.

In the last two weeks, former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, former Iraqi ambassador J. Paul Bremer III, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and other jurassics from the heyday of the Bush #43 neocon era have gone on a panoramic media offensive, taking to The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, CNN, NBC and ABC to defend the positions that ushered us into war in the first place.

Douglas Feith, former Bush undersecretary of defense for policy, cleared his throat in Politico, taking the Obama White House to task for its Iraq policies. Astonishingly, Feith’s central role in the first Iraq war — as a leading architect of the WMD rationale used to legitimize it — wasn’t even mentioned by Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere, who quoted Feith several times in a June 12 story.

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Once you set aside the reflex musculature of such automatic hawks (and others like Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has for months advocated for a heavier boots-on-soil American military posture in the region), there didn’t seem to be many effective immediate options, besides the ritual consideration of drone strikes — something almost certain to be ineffective with no people on the ground.

“Target-level detail intelligence is hard to come by in the best of conditions,” said retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, on MSNBC. “The problem with ISIS and insurgents is, they hug the population. The bombs don’t discriminate; when you’ve got a lot people in a tight space, not all of [them] are enemy people.”

That absence of options changed when President Obama announced Thursday what was probably inevitable to those in Washington, and probably unthinkable to the American public: Obama notified Congress that he was sending up to 300 U.S. special operations troops, probably Green Berets, “to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad” and to assess “how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces going forward.”

Obama also is considering sending as many as 100 to Iraq to advise its armed forces as it battles the insurgents, according to a senior U.S. official, as reported by McClatchy.

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YOU’RE NOW invited to experience that sinking feeling, that pit-of-the-stomach déjà vu that accompanies doing something a second time when it shouldn’t have been done the first time. You’re asked to recall that some of the Iraqi towns taken and now held by ISIS forces have names already burned into the American consciousness, for all the wrong reasons: Tikrit, Mosul, Baqubah, Ramadi ... Fallujah. And you’re inclined not to want to do any of that again.

We have the president’s assurance that that won’t happen. “We’re not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which, while we’re there, we’re keeping a lid on things, and after enormous sacrifices by us, as soon as we’re not there, suddenly people end up acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country,” he said last week.

But Iran is the wild card, the possible change agent in the fast-emerging new political calculus of the region. And how the United States engages Iran — diplomatically, politically and, last resort, militarily — over Iraq in the next few months could be the needed reset button for old relationships with old adversaries ... the kind of organically happening event that’s eluded us over years of planned diplomacy and saber-rattling.

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Analysts in the punditburo have advised against the U.S. taking sides in the new conflict, but that’s never been an option. The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, mothballed the Iraqi army, decapitated the Iraqi government and began the process of de-Baathification that, with the election of al-Maliki, indicated that we were taking a side in the sectarian strife that has shaped and roiled that country and the region for 1,300 years.

Now, the instability that ISIS personifies has reinforced the established U.S. position of support for Maliki, a Shiite who’s getting an assist from ... the Shia government of Iran, and the government of Syria, ruled by Bashar al-Assad and other leaders of the Alawite sect, a more secular Shiite offshoot. The blitzkrieg rise of ISIS also compels the United States to realize that Iran, which has no more desire to watch ISIS destabilize the region than the U.S. does, is now a reluctant bedfellow, an anathema transformed, for the time being, into something closer to a necessary inamorata.

Secretary of State John Kerry said as much on June 16, in the necessarily conditional language of the nation’s top diplomat. “We're open to discussions if there is something constructive that can be contributed by Iran, if Iran is prepared to do something that is going to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq and ability of the government to reform,” he said in Washington.

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LEFT PRETTY much under-explored here is how this new tango between old foes resonates elsewhere in the region. Israel, which has made plain its willingness to consider bombing Iran to halt its nuclear program, has to put any such planning on hold, to the degree it was ever actively considered. Nothing would inflame events in the region more than doing that, and Israel knows it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to find the middle ground on Iraq today on “Meet the Press.” When he asked for his opinion on the U.S.’ next move, he said: “I think that there are two actions you have to take. One is to take the actions that you deem necessary to counter the ISIS takeover of Iraq, and the second is not to allow Iran to dominate Iraq the way it dominated Lebanon and Syria. So you actually have to work on both sides.”

And speaking directly about the Iranian nuclear program, he said that "[b]y far the worst outcome that could come of out of this is that one of these factions, Iran, would come out with nuclear weapons capability. That would be a tragic mistake. It would make everything else pale in comparison ... these weapons, nuclear weapons, could kill millions. That should be prevented at all cost."

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But Netanyahu’s hawkish stance on Iran precedes by years the current, more secular, seemingly moderate government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who, in a June 12 speech against ISIS, indicated how much Iran and Israel have in common, Netanyahu’s wariness notwithstanding.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will not tolerate this violence and we will not tolerate this terror and as we stated at the UN, we will fight and combat violence, extremism and terrorism in the region and the world,” he said.

A few weeks back, Iran and the United States met in Vienna to discuss the framework for a nuclear agreement; the meeting took place with envoys from Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

Netanyahu’s aggressive posture toward Iran stands in contrast to Iran’s bid for moderation — itself a marked departure from Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That’s a problem for Israeli hawks: You don’t think of bombing a country when its duly elected leader makes statements whose intentions vis-à-vis terrorism appear to coincide with your own.

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EVERYONE’S ON tenterhooks right now, and they’ll stay that way until July, when the Iraqi parliament holds elections. With the certification of the April 30 election results, Maliki must call on parliament to convene between now and the end of June. Parliament would elect a new speaker and, within a month after that, Maliki would order the candidate with the most votes in the parliament to form a new government.

How and how well Maliki survives that parliamentary re-formation is an open question. Ironically, right now, the rise of ISIS has helped to both cement his current hold on power and endanger it at the same time. Incumbency has its benefits; Maliki’s State of Law party prevailed in the April 30 vote.

Despite Sunni and Kurds aggressively representing their interests in the parliament, Maliki may keep his legislative leverage and his hold on power — but as the president of a country literally dissolving around him, as the Sunni ISIS consolidates its brutal gains, and the Kurds build the power base they’ve sought for decades.

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“Right now is a moment where the fate of Iraq hangs in the balance,” President Obama said Thursday at the White House. “And the test for all of them is going to be where they can overcome the mistrust, the deep sectarian divisions ... and say, ‘this is bigger than any one of us, and we’ve got to make sure that we do what’s right for the Iraqi people.’” The president’s call for a united Iraq flies in the face of indelible facts on the ground: that kind of spiritual unity between Shia and Sunnis hasn’t happened in 13 centuries.

More than the future of Iraq is hanging in the balance. This is, now like last time, a regional and global concern. For Iran, it’s put-up-or-shut-up time about being more a moderate force in the region and the world at large. For Israel it means giving Iran more time to do just that, tempering its reliable antagonism toward Tehran.

And for the United States, dealing with the events of the next few months means having to overcome its own mistrust, of Iran; to disregard the reconvened neocon mob, its proxies and apologists; and to somehow navigate that fine line between doing too little in the region and doing too much — an equipose it’s rarely shown command of in the past. When it all happened before.

Image credits: ISIS fighters: via The Guardian. Maliki: Hadi Mizban/tk Wolfowitz: Reuters/Yuri Gripas. Obama: The White House. Netanyahu: from live TV feed. Rouhani: Reuters/Umit Bektas.

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