What to make of this week’s theater in Iraq?
To recap briefly, the country was going to hell in a hand-basket in 2006 when President Bush decided to just say “no” to the Democrat Surrender Chorus. With John McCain’s support, the commander-in-chief directed a “surge” in U.S. combat forces under the brilliant leadership of General David Petraeus. The results could not have been better: Al-Qaeda has been routed, Shiite militia activity is diminished, violence is down throughout the country, and Iraqis are making progress toward political stability.
So this week Barack Obama, the Democrats’ presidential candidate, made a ballyhooed “fact-finding” tour of the same Iraq he wanted Americans to retreat from in defeat two years ago. And Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, despite owing his job to Bush and McCain, presented Obama with a big fat bouquet. His assertion, in an interview with Der Spiegel, that American forces should leave Iraq “as soon as possible,” and preferably on the 16-month timeline proposed by Obama, was just what the messiah ordered — effectively tossing McCain under one of those metaphorical buses the 2008 campaign seems to produce by the fleet.
Now, let me be clear about my biases. I have been a supporter of the surge but not an enthusiastic one. I’ve always thought it necessary but insufficient in a broader war that cannot be won in Iraq alone. The surge’s main proponents prioritize something I couldn’t care less about, namely, Iraq’s emergence as a functioning democracy — the theory being that the security forged by an increase in U.S. combat forces gives Iraqis the “space” to make difficult political choices.
Personally, I don’t see a country that imposes Islam as the state religion and makes sharia a foundational part of its legal code as a democracy. And even if I could get beyond that, it’s just not that important to me. The American people would not have committed a single soldier to Iraq for the goal of Iraqi democracy. The war on terror is about defeating jihadists and their state sponsors. That was the purpose of toppling Saddam Hussein. The measure of victory in Iraq is not the form of Iraq’s government. It is whether what we leave behind is a stable ally of the United States in the very bad neighborhood from which most of our enemies hail.
Bias number two: I have never been a Maliki fan. I see him as a Shiite fundamentalist and operative of the Dawa party which the United States once regarded as a terrorist organization — the sort of thing that happens when an outfit bombs an American embassy, as Dawa (working with Iran and Hezbollah) did in Kuwait in 1983. At the time, Maliki was exiled in Syria (after a year in Iran) running Dawa’s “Jihad Office.” Despite being sworn enemies of Saddam Hussein, Maliki and Dawa opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion which has put them in power. The Iraqi president condemned Israel and declined to criticize Hezbollah during their 2006 war. Though he has recently taken the fight to Iran-backed militias, he often appears quite cozy with Tehran, which has spread its tentacles through Iraq during Maliki’s stewardship.
All that said, though, Iraq is multi-layered and complicated. It defies simple explanations. And Iran is big, bellicose, and on Iraq’s doorstep. While we have effectively subdued Iran in Iraq, at least for now, the mullahs are running rings around us everyplace else. The administration of President Bush, once portrayed as a “cowboy” — which many of us thought more an honorific than an insult — strangely meets each new provocation with appeasement. Reading those signals, any Iraqi government, no matter how pro-American, would have to walk a fine line with their treacherous neighbor.
In any event, I’m less concerned about Maliki than I am about the Iraqis in general. Regardless of what Maliki and big-government community-organizers like Obama may think, whatever Iraq is going to be will be driven from the ground up, not the top down.
So my question is: Who are the Iraqis?
The surge has been a huge combat success, and that is the most important part. Vanquished terrorists don’t kill Americans. One of the main objectives of the counter-insurgency strategy, however, is to win the Iraqis over to our side of the conflict — to convince them that we are committed to their security and that it is thus in their interests to side with us rather than the bad guys.
The surge’s strongest proponents maintain that the strategy has been extremely successful in this regard as well. And people I talk to who have been in Iraq insist that average Iraqis, whose lives are improving, earnestly desire both the continued protection of American troops and long-term friendship with the United States.
Is that the way it is, or are these folks seeing the Iraq they want to see? That’s what we need to know.
Here is Maliki expressing a lot of anti-American sentiment: he wants us gone, wants to be able to prosecute “crimes committed by U.S. soldiers against our population,” and so on. Even without my predisposition against him, I’d find this troubling (to put it mildly). Yet, surge proponents — who’ve always been a bit too riveted by the nuances of Iraqi politics for my taste — argue that we should take this rhetoric with a grain of salt. Maliki, they contend, just says these things for domestic political consumption because elections are upcoming.
Okay, fine. Here, then, is my other question: If we’ve won the Iraqis over (or, at least, are winning them over), why would it be in Maliki’s political interest to state publicly that he wants American forces out of the country “as soon as possible”? Why does he think that helps him with his domestic audience?
Why would he go out of his way to help Obama when the Iraqis must know McCain is committed to their long-term security and Obama isn’t?
Back in March, the BBC reported polling that indicated 72 percent of Iraqis oppose the presence of U.S. forces and 61 percent believe the U.S. presence made the security situation worse rather than better. Far more alarming, fully 42 percent were said to believe attacks on U.S. forces are justified. Now, it’s a given that the Beeb is anti-war and deeply hostile to the Bush administration. I don’t pretend to know how reliable their figures are. Assuming they are reliable, perhaps sentiments have changed in the ensuing four months as things in Iraq have markedly improved.
But let’s not put our heads in the sand. Those numbers, like Maliki’s apparent political calculations, paint a starkly different picture of the Iraqis than what one hears from the surge’s strongest supporters. It may be a skewed picture. But it also may not, and that is worrisome.
Again, it doesn’t matter whether Iraq is a democracy. They have new Muslim democracies in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories too. Perhaps you’ve heard: Hezbollah is now running one and Hamas the other. No one yet has demonstrated why country X’s being a democracy necessarily makes country Y safer from jihadists, especially given how adept jihadists are at exploiting the maneuverability afforded by democratic societies. And nascent democracies in which Iran takes a deep interest do not have a very promising track record — and won’t as long as we don’t have the stomach to confront Iran seriously.
Far more consequential for our security is whether, after all the American blood and treasure that have been sacrificed, what we are building and will leave behind is a friend of the United States … or a satellite of Iran.
I wish someone would convincingly explain why, if the Iraqis are with us, their president thinks calling for an American withdrawal is good domestic politics.
– National Review’s Andrew C. McCarthy is the author of Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad.