Improbably, an opportunity has arisen in Iraq
for the U.S. to attain two of its most important goals, namely obtaining some
legitimacy for the Maliki "government" and getting American troops out. This
could be the last international express leaving Baghdad Central Station, and
we should be on it.
The opportunity arises from a breakdown in negotiations to draw up a status
of forces agreement and a so-called "security framework," which is an (unequal)
alliance in all but name. According to the June 11 Washington Post,
"The Americans are making demands that would lead to the colonization
of Iraq," said Sami al-Askari, a senior Shi'ite politician on parliament's
foreign relations committee who is close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki."If
we can't reach a fair agreement, many people think we should say, 'Goodbye,
U.S. troops. We don't need you here anymore.'"
Washington should be dancing in the streets. There could at this point be
no better way for American troops to exit Iraq than in response to a request
from the Iraqi "government." Contrary to the neocons' promises, the Iraqis
did not welcome American troops with flowers, but they might be willing to
toss a few our way as we pulled out. We could withdraw from a failed enterprise
with flags flying and drums rolling, maintaining a halfway credible pretense
that we did not lose. We are not likely to do better than that.
At the same time, the Maliki "government" has a heaven-sent opportunity to
acquire what it needs most, namely some legitimacy. So long as it is propped
up by American troops, it will remain Vichy. But if it ordered the Americans
out, it would suddenly begin to look like a real Iraqi government. That is
far from enough to restore a state in Iraq, but it would be a step in the right
There is little doubt that if a referendum were held in Iraq on sending the
Americans home, it would win in a landslide. Iraqi politicians know where their
public is on this issue, and like politicians everywhere they want to swim
with the tide.
More, some seem to sense that the Americans' time in Iraq is ending if not
over. As usual, the Desert Fox, Moqtada al-Sadr, is making all the right moves.
He is positioning himself as leader of all Iraqi resistance to the American
occupation, not just head of a Shi'ite faction. By welcoming Iraqi troops (many
of whom are his militiamen) into areas he controls but fighting the Americans,
he is splitting his opposition. Most importantly, he is maintaining his credentials
as the Iraqi leader least willing to condone a continued occupation, thereby
gaining that decisive quality, legitimacy.
If the Iraqi government orders American troops out, the result would be a
win-win situation. America would win, and so would Iraq. In fact, it would
be a win-win outcome, and there's the rub. The third winner would be Iran.
A Shi'ite-dominated Iraq free of American occupation would have a close relationship
with Iran. In fact, in order to defend itself in a nasty neighborhood, Iraq
would probably conclude a formal alliance with Iran.
Washington's response should be a rapprochement with Iran. After all, our
real enemy is not any state but the non-state forces of the Fourth Generation.
But that is not how the Bush administration will view the matter.
On the contrary, faced with the possibility of an Iranian strategic victory,
courtesy of the American troops who overthrew Saddam, the U.S. government is
likely to take the fool's way out, escalation. Inside the White House bubble,
the argument for attacking Iran might become irresistible, driven as it would
be by panic. As I have warned repeatedly, the outcome of such folly could very
well include the loss of the American Army now in Iraq, not to mention another
doubling in the price of oil. As usual under the second-worst president in
American history (Woodrow Wilson still ranks number one), we have seen the
enemy, and he is us. All we have to do to get out of Iraq with some dignity
while strengthening the government we installed there is push that government
into ordering us home. That should be easy enough; what intransigence in the
ongoing negotiations cannot achieve a few million Swiss francs should certainly
manage. Instead, we will refuse to board the last train out, then blow up the
railroad. If it were happening to someone else, it would all be comical.