Maliki and the Sunnis

| Tue Aug. 26, 2008 6:22 PM EDT

MALIKI AND THE SUNNIS....I've written before about this, but today Shawn Brimley and Colin Kahl tell us yet again that Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite government in Baghdad is refusing to incorporate former Sunni militiamen into Iraq's security forces — and that this may soon lead to a renewed outbreak of insurgency. There are lots of things to say about this, but I think this paragraph gets to the heart of things:

The "surge" strategy in Iraq, as described by President Bush in January 2007, rested on the belief that tamping down violence would provide a window of opportunity that Iraq's leaders would use to pursue political reconciliation. But this has not occurred, despite the dramatic security improvements. Indeed, if the problem in 2006 and 2007 was Maliki's weakness and inability to pursue reconciliation in the midst of a civil war, the issue in 2008 is his overconfidence and unwillingness to entertain any real accommodation with his political adversaries. America's blank check to the Iraqi government feeds this hubris.

This problem repeats itself constantly in debates over Iraq policy: no matter what happens, there's a reason to continue doing what we're doing. If Maliki is too weak, he can't compromise with the Sunnis. But now he's too strong, so he doesn't have to compromise with the Sunnis. In either case American troops need to stick around. Likewise, when violence is high, we have to stay to crush it out. But when violence is low, we can't leave because the peace is so fragile. Elections, ditto. Infrastructure, ditto. Regional squabbles, ditto. It's never quite the right time for us to leave.

Brimley and Kahl, like a lot of others, are convinced that there's still some kind of magical middle ground where Maliki is a strong enough leader to enforce his will on a fractured country but a weak enough leader that the U.S. can exert meaningful leverage over him. Unfortunately, this is almost certainly a delusion. That middle ground is a target about an inch wide and nearly impossible to hit, let alone keep our balance on for long. So what happens when Maliki decides it's time to consolidate Shiite power? Joe Klein:

The question now is: what can — or should we do about this? Whose side are we on if Maliki launches the crackdown? Brimley and Kahl think we can influence Maliki's behavior by threatening to withold U.S. military support — but that may be exactly what the overconfident Maliki wants. Then again, what choice do we have? I doubt that even John McCain will argue that the role of the U.S. military will be to defend the Sons of Iraq in the coming battle. My guess is that the end result in Iraq is an authoritarian Maliki- or military-led Shi'ite government, less toxic than Saddam Hussein's, which will stand closer to Iran than to Saudi Arabia in the regional Sunni-Shi'ite contest. The war in Iraq will not have been "lost," but can this be reasonably described as "victory?" I think not. It can be best described as a terrible, shameful waste of lives and resources.

One way or another, Iraqis are going to solve Iraq's problems. Our presence only puts off that day, it doesn't eliminate it. More here from Marc Lynch.

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