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The newsflash of the

The newsflash of the day is the surprising strength of clerically-based Shi'a groups in Iraq. Perhaps 'surprising' should be placed in edgy quotation marks, since the articles and columns appearing in today's papers are based on the comments of those who aren't surprised at all -- namely folks at State, CIA, the broader intelligence community, and region experts generally. The argument behind these critiques is not that the problem is insurmountable but that the planners of the war seem to have given the issue so little attention.

Take a look at "U.S. Planners Surprised by Strength of Iraqi Shiites," which is above-the-fold in the Post. The Times has a complementary piece on Iran infiltrating agents into southern Iraq to organize the Shi'a along lines congenial to Iran's religious and geopolitical interests.

The most interesting piece may be the column in the Times by Dilip Hiro. He explores the longstanding and distressing pattern by which in situations of anarchy or delegitimized governments, it is often the clerics who have the sole remaining base of social and political authority, and are best able to provide some measure of security and essential services.

We're still in 'too-soon-to-tell' territory. But the democratizers in the DOD camp are concerned about the situation with the Shi'as and how ably the Iranians have been playing the situation. They do have on their side the fact that the most senior and revered Shi'a clerics are not fans of the Iranians' theocratic model. There's also the counterveiling force of Iraqi and, more broadly, Arab nationalism. But will these be enough?

I still want to say more about Newt Gingrich's cartoonish performance at AEI yesterday. But for the moment I just want to discuss an interchange which Charles Krauthammer, another of the members of the panel, had with one of the questioners. (One of the most entertaining parts of the panel was the time when Gingrich's clownish, grade-school rhetoric became too much for Krauthammer, and he felt the need to pipe in with some clarifications.) A key question today is what we would do if the Iraqis elected an Islamist government. When a questioner posed this question to Krauthammer, he as much as refused to entertain it. While granting that it was a possibility, he said it was extremely unlikely since people had never freely voted for what he called 'totalitarianism.' (I think he called it an 'extreme hypothetical' or perhaps a 'radical hypothetical' -- I'll check my recording later to verify.) People in the audience tossed out the examples of Iran and Nazi Germany, which are at best flawed examples, since in neither case did a majority of the population vote for the government that came to power. But it has happened, exactly this, as recently as 1992 in Algeria. The Islamist party, the FIS, was winning what no one doubted was a free election when the military stepped in and annulled the results of the election. (The one saving grace in Iraq may be the inability of Shi'a and Sunni Islamist to come together politically, let alone religiously.)

In its own way Krauthammer's comment was the most disturbing part of the presentation since it was an example of the one thing none of us can really afford: the temptation to cling to ideologically-driven assumptions over observed facts.

Next Up: the administration's get-out-quick camp's stated desire to avoid the appearance of being colonizers or occupiers and why this is the most ridiculous sort of cop-out.

Zubaydi was picked up

"Zubaydi was picked up by the Iraqi National Congress (INC) exile group's militia, the Free Iraqi Forces, and turned over to the U.S. Central Command yesterday, the official said."

That's the third graf in Walter Pincus's piece in Tuesday's Post.

A couple days ago, Saddam's son-in-law Jamal Mustafa Abdallah returned from Syria and turned himself in to members of the INC 'militia'.

Then there's the headline in Tuesday's Washington Times: 'INC says it's closing in on Saddam'.

It's not too early to start asking just what's going on here. We already know that the Pentagon airlifted Chalabi and several hundred of his 'Free Iraqi Forces' into Iraq not only over the objections of many others in the administration but apparently without even notifying many of them.

The question everyone is asking today is whether the Pentagon -- and the Bush administration more broadly -- is going to try to install Chalabi as the head of a new Iraqi government or at least tip the scales decisively in his favor.

(My new column in The Hill this week discusses the Chalabi question, some of his background, and how this may all come back to bite us.)

I think it's clear that that is precisely what's happening. Is Chalabi's militia just getting really lucky grabbing all these guys? Or is the Pentagon working with him on these captures, making him privy to US intelligence, using his 'militia' as a proxy, or simply letting it be known that if you want to turn yourself in, they're the ones to go to?

More generally, Iraq is currently under US occupation. That means the US military is responsible for law, order and security in the country, as well as the apprehension of potential war criminals or former regime leaders. An occupying power usually doesn't look very kindly on self-declared 'militias' freelancing around the country trying to set up their own de facto authorities. The situation is different with the peshmergas in Iraqi Kurdistan since the Kurds have had de facto self-rule for a number of years. But under just what authority is Chalabi's crew operating? Under whose auspices?

If our plan is that the INC militia is to be the basis of the new Iraqi army -- as some suggest -- that makes a mockery of our claim that we're not favoring any particular leader.

Most of Chalabi's supporters in Washington understand that he has little support inside the country. They think, however, that he's earned a right to at least a shot at leading Iraq because of his work on the outside agitating for regime change over the years. On top of that, they believe that the sort of Iraq he'd help create would be the best both for the Iraqis and for us.

So what to do about the fact that he's got no constituency in the country and the fact that the Iraqis seem hostile to the idea of being governed by emigres? Well, the thinking goes something like this ... America's got a lot of stuff. Stuff? Well, money, water purifiers, electrical generators, medicine, you name it, all sorts of stuff.

But who becomes the conduit for that stuff? If that conduit happened to be someone like Ahmed Chalabi that would be a very good way of building up a constituency on the ground in the country.

If this is what we're up to, it's something that should really be debated.

Rumsfeld Neo-Con Mau-Mau Guidebook

Rumsfeld Neo-Con Mau-Mau Guidebook, p. 46, "Powell Knock-Down Checklist"

1. Former government official (check)

2. Member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board (check)

3. Fellow at AEI (check)

4. Willing to do a lot of media (check)

5 ...

Over the last several

Over the last several months I've become widely associated with what might be called the 'botched diplomacy' hypothesis. (The Wall Street Journal Online, for what it's worth, disparagingly called me the "brains behind the Democrats' 'botched diplomacy' spin.") Well, now I'm getting some high-profile support ... from Newt Gingrich.

AEI had a big confab this morning at which Gingrich announced his support for precisely this argument. (His presentation was previewed in the Post this morning.) American diplomacy, he argued, has been an unmitigated disaster over the last several months.

Here's a taste ...

The State Department communications program failed during these five months to such a degree that 95 percent of the Turkish people opposed the American position. This fit in with a pattern of State Department communications failures as a result of which the South Korean people regarded the United States as more dangerous than North Korea and a vast majority of French and German citizens favored policies that opposed the United States.
Only there's a catch. As the above quotation implies, the problem isn't with the Bush administration or its policies. It's all due to the meddling of the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. The reason the Europeans and the Turks and everyone else turned against us isn't because of Bush administration policy. It's because the State Department and the particularly the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs refused to implement Bush administration policy.

The answer? Purge the State Department.

(Note to all members of the conintern: Stop zagging! Time to zig! (What's the reference? See Novick, That Noble Dream, p. 419) The inevitability-of-no-international-support party line is no longer operative. We're on to State Department betrayal. Crib-sheets for the new argument can be picked up at the AEI front desk, laminated wallet-sized versions available at ATR.)

Ever since that whole elective office gig didn't pan out, Gingrich has been casting around for a new angle. And this would seem to be it. Gingrich's rhetorical palette remains about the same as ever: red, yellow, orange and hot orange. So we'll of course be saying much more about this.

Sometimes the best short-n-sweet

Sometimes the best short-n-sweet bit of information for the day is contained is Chris Nelson's staccato, rat-tat-tat run-down of the day's events that introduces each day's edition of The Nelson Report. Here's today's ...

Kelly on the way to Beijing for N. Korea meeting, Bush meets again today on Syria. What each has in common is role of Colin Powell in urging diplomacy, and Bush's willingness to listen. Rumsfeld & DOD hawks were ready to send troops into Syria "in hot pursuit" before Bush said "no". And Rumsfeld was against holding the Beijing/DPRK talks, until Bush said "yes", at Powell's urging. Then the hawks tried to substitute Bolton for Kelly, the approximate equivalent of a MOAB, but Powell prevailed. So, reports of Powell's demise exaggerated…for now. Question is, are the "adults" really in charge (the optimist's view) or is Powell the guy who grabs the steering wheel when the bus driver hits 100 mph?
Also, do not miss this article from the Israeli daily Ha'aretz on the apparent breakdown in talks between Arafat and Palestinian PM-designate Abu Mazen. The deal-breaker, it seems, is that Mazen is demanding the authority to dismantle Fatah's Al Aqsa Brigades and other Palestinian paramilitary groups, and also make Mohammed Dahlan head of security.

It's not clear that the short-term outcome here is going to be a good one. Arafat is apparently now reaching out to other potential prime ministerial candidates -- presumably ones he can reliably control. But the deeper story seems very positive: the emergence of something like conventional politics, the open vetting of the crucial issues and thus the possibility of democratic accountability. More than anything else, it's the splintering of unitary power within the Palestinian authority and the possibility of having the crucial political questions hashed out with some degree of openness rather than by violence and opaque factional in-fighting. This is important. And, potentially, good news for everyone.

On the off chance

On the off chance that you woke up this morning in too buoyant a mood and need to get depressed really quickly, then you won't want to miss this piece ("Officials Argue for Fast U.S. Exit From Iraq") in Monday's Washington Post.

As the title implies, the article is built around blind quotes from various senior administration officials arguing that we should, after all, try to get out of Iraq as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

It's true that this is the kind of piece you put together by going to every administration official who's eager for an early exit. But the fact that the author apparently got so much material from 'senior' administration officials is a very bad sign.

Here's just a listing of some of the choicest quotes and snippets ...

Senior administration official on the post-war plan: "I don't think it has to be expensive, and I don't think it has to be lengthy. Americans do everything fairly quickly."

...

Senior administration official: "The president's goal is to leave Iraq on the road to prosperity and security and democracy -- or at least give them a fighting chance of it."

...

Former Sec Def James R. Schlesinger: "This is going to be a very tricky course that we are on. Many people who have the right vision about what should be accomplished do not, as of now, recognize how much of a commitment in time as well as money this is going to require."

...

Pentagon and White House officials disagree with such warnings. One senior defense official questioned whether 75,000 troops would be needed even in the near future, saying the U.S. military force that deposed Hussein's government was not much larger. Some government functions could be turned over to an interim Iraqi government in a matter of months, the official said. Even the need for a new Iraqi military force could be obviated by moving U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters south toward Baghdad, the official suggested.

You only have to study Iraq for about an hour and a half to understand that the idea of turning the policing of Baghdad over to Kurdish peshmergas is just a tragic joke.

The subtext of the whole piece is, "It's gonna cost a lot more than we thought, it looks really complicated, so let's just give them a good running start, send over a few water purifiers, and then get the hell out."

What's so depressing about this article is that none of the difficulties which are now carted out as excuses for pulling out quick were at all unexpected. For months, reluctant hawks were saying, 'Yes, go in, but only if you're willing to commit to the sort of long, expensive effort that can insure a good outcome.'

At least some senior administration officials seem willing to toss aside all the grand rhetoric just a couple weeks after the major battles stopped. Just to complete the morality tale, the ones now holding out for a concerted push for reconstruction and democratization are the folks at the State Department -- the ones the hawks at the Pentagon long accused of opposing efforts to democratize Iraq.

It's hard to read this article and not get the sense that at least some big players in the administration had never really thought seriously about what they were getting us into. Or, if not that, that they're cynical almost beyond measure. I always feared that we'd get into Iraq on the sparkling vision of Paul Wolfowitz and then govern it with ethics of Richard Perle and the parsimony of Mitch Daniels.

If this article is any sign ... well, you know the rest.

At a Passover seder

At a Passover seder a few days ago I was talking to an Israeli emigre who told me there was a long-abandoned oil pipeline connecting the Iraqi city of Mosul to the Israeli port city in Haifa. The pipeline was built by the British in the 1930s and 1940s. But it was shut down in 1948 when the Brits quit Palestine and the state of Israel was born. It's sat unused for more than half a century.

The implications of reopening such a pipeline under the auspices of a pro-American Iraqi government were obvious to me immediately. But I didn't know if the idea had yet gotten much serious attention.

It turns out that it has. Quite a lot, actually. The issue was first raised by Israel's Minister of National Infrastructure at the end of March. His comments were reported in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. Here's a more recent piece from Janes (the British defense industry news publisher) and another in Sunday's Guardian.

The Guardian piece not only confirms that this is being actively discussed in Israel, but also that the Israelis are discussing it with US administration officials as well as members of Ahmed Chalabi's INC. (Add to this, Richard Perle's statement last month that Chalabi "and his people have confirmed that they want a real peace process, and that they would recognize the state of Israel. There is no doubt about that if they come to power."

This captures what's at the heart of my deepest misgivings about this whole endeavor we're now embarked upon: fatal overreach on the part of American policy-makers. It's an overreach with multiple causes, none of which will lead to anything good.

I'd like nothing better than to see a pro-Israeli government in Baghdad. It would be great if they could start pumping oil from Mosul through Jordan to Haifa. Same goes for a "real peace process." But what is the chance of any of these things happening in the short term and the new government of Iraq actually being democratic?

What sort of government in the Arab world, born of what is at best the iffy origin of an American invasion, would kick things off by establishing warm relations with Israel and opening a pipeline to sell Iraqi oil to the Israelis? The answer, I'd imagine, is one that won't last a second longer than American troops are on the ground.

There are those who think that Arab hostility toward Israel is largely the product of corrupt, authoritarian governments that divert popular unrest into rage against Israel. I think there's a degree of truth to that argument. But even if you grant the point, which I do only to a limited degree, it's still quite possible that that antipathy will persist long after the corrupt, authoritarian governments who fed it leave the scene.

It's already clear that our credibility and Arab perceptions of our motives are extremely poor. To make this democratization project work, we will really have to be, as the old-timers say, purer than Caesar's wife. If we treat Iraq simultaneously as a democratization project and as grab-bag to fill out our geopolitical wish list, then we're heading for disaster.

We hear a lot, and rightly so, that this effort is going to require patience. Usually that's meant in the sense of patience to stay involved in Iraq's affairs for a very long time. But we're just as much in need of patience to achieve our most desired ends in the region. If we don't have it, if we try to squeeze this orange for every quick advantage, we really are heading for disaster.

There is a role

"There is a role for the Islamic religious parties, including Shia religious parties," said Ahmed Chalabi this morning on ABC, "because they have some constituencies. But they are not going to be forcing any agenda or any theocracy on the Iraqi people."

Some constituencies ...

I don't how large the Shi'a parties' constituencies are. The answer likely turns largely on definitions. Are we talking about Shi'a parties based largely on group identification or those committed to the imposition of a theocratic state?

Whatever the answer to that question, what's clear is that they have some constituency in the country and that Ahmed Chalabi has no constituency in the country -- so long as you exclude the several hundred who flew into the country a couple weeks ago. And yet he's the one we're hearing from.

To the extent that he gains a constituency it will likely be by leveraging his connections to American capital and political players. (The fairly consistent report from journalists on the ground is generalized Iraqi resistance to leadership by exiles who've spent most of their lives outside of the country -- a phrase that is quickly becoming a code-word for Ahmed Chalabi.)

Ironically, this is a replay of the last dozen years. Through the 1990s, Chalabi had very little support in the Iraqi exile community -- let alone in Iraq. The key exile groups maintained their membership in Chalabi's group, the Iraqi National Congress, largely because he was a conduit for money and access to the US government. The INC billed itself as the umbrella group representing the breadth of the opposition, when in fact it had become little more than a shell. The other groups, nominally joined under the INC umbrella, began meeting in separate ad-hoc arrangements for precisely the purpose of sidelining Chalabi.

Chalabi advocates claim this was the work of the State Department, trying to undermine Chalabi. And there's some truth to this. But to the degree it was true it was largely because they believed he was an obstacle to getting the rest of the groups together to actually do something beside lobby Washington (we'll discuss later why State and the CIA don't like Chalabi).

Now the US media (and perhaps various players in government circles) seem to be falling into the old trap -- giving disproportionate weight to Chalabi because he speaks good English (and talks -- more broadly -- the language of the West) and has a thick 202 area code rolodex.

Just a short note

Just a short note on the WMD search. Here's a clip from an article at Time.com ...

The failure to turn up anything to date raises two possibilities, neither one good, says Joseph Cirincione, chief of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "It may be that there aren't as many weapons as the President said, in which case we have a major intelligence failure, a huge embarrassment for the President and a huge blow to U.S. credibility—and that's the good news," he says. "The other option is that there are as many weapons as the President feared, and they're no longer under anyone's control."
That sounds like a distressingly good point. But as these searches go on it seems to me that it would be terribly misguided not to bring the UN inspectors back into the country. Since we fought a war to get at Iraq's WMD there's no reason why we shouldn't run the search entirely to our own liking and dictates and to suit our own needs. But having the UN inspectors there along for the ride, as it were, will serve a critical function: namely, giving the search credibility.

Now that we've had a few false alarms with would-be WMD finds, when we do come up with something there will be lots of people around the world who will think we planted whatever we find. Frankly, not a few people in this country will be suspicious. Whether that's fair, or reasonable, or rational is really beside the point. If and when we find this stuff it will be critical to our interests and goals that as many people as possible believe us. At the moment, having some of the UN inspectors involved seems like a good way of accomplishing that. And I haven't yet heard what the downside would be -- save for pique and payback.

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