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July 17, 2008

Maliki's 'Timetable' Shakes Iraq Debate

by Ray McGovern

You say you expected more rhetoric than reality from Senators Obama and McCain in their speeches about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well, that's certainly what you got.

What I find nonetheless amazing is how they, and the pundits, have taken such little notice of the dramatic change in the political landscape occasioned by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bombshell on July 7 – his insistence on a "timetable" for withdrawal of U.S. troops before any accord is reached on their staying past the turn of the year.

Responding to a question at his press conference on Tuesday, President George W. Bush showed that he was vaguely aware that the timetable is, as Robert Dreyfuss says, a "big deal." Bush even alluded haltingly to the possibility of extending the UN mandate still further.

But it is far from clear that Maliki, who is under great domestic pressure, would be able to sell that to the various factions upon which he depends for support, or to those which he must keep at bay.

As Dreyfuss points out, Maliki and his Shiite allies are also under considerable pressure from Iran, which remains the chief ally of the ruling alliance of Shiites. Most important, Maliki is by no means in control of the process.

Israel

Here's where it gets sticky. No one who knows about third rails in U.S. politics would expect the candidates or the pundits to address how those now running Israel are likely to be looking at the implications of a large U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq next year.

I am remembering how I was pilloried on June 16, 2005, immediately after Rep. John Conyers's rump-Judiciary Committee hearing in the bowels of the Capitol, for a candid answer to a question from one of his colleagues; i.e., if the invasion of Iraq was not about WMD, and not about non-existent ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda, then why did we attack?

In answer, I used the acronym OIL. O for oil; I for Israel; and L for Logistics, meaning the military bases necessary to protect both. Neither the House members present nor the media people seemed to have any problem with oil and military bases as factors.

However, the suggestion that one main motive was an attempt to make that part of the Middle East safer for Israel (yes, folks, the neocons really thought that attacking Iraq would do that) – well, that was anathema.

As it is anathema today to suggest that this is still one of the main reasons, besides oil, why Elliott Abrams and other neocons – not to mention Dick Cheney and his team – insist we must stay, Maliki and his associates be damned.

Here in Washington, we can dissect and quibble over remarks by Maliki and other Iraqi leaders. The Israelis have to take such statements seriously. No agreement on U.S. forces staying into 2009 without a timetable for withdrawal? For Tel Aviv, this is getting very serious.

My guess is the Israeli leaders are apoplectic. The fiasco in Iraq clearly has made the region much more dangerous for Israel. There are actually real "terrorists" and "extremists" now in Iraq, and the prospect of U.S. troops leaving has got to be a cause of acute concern in Tel Aviv.

Keeping the US Entangled: Iran

This dramatic change – or even just the specter of it – greatly increases the incentive of the Israeli government to ensure the kind of U.S. involvement in the area that would have to endure for several years.

The Israelis need something to guarantee that Washington will stand by what Sen. Obama in his speech called "our ally" – never mind that there is no mutual U.S.-Israel defense treaty. They are painfully aware that they have only six more months of Bush and Cheney.

The legislation drafted by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) being so zealously promoted in Congress calls for the equivalent of a blockade of Iran. That would be one way to entangle the United States; there are many others.

The point is that the growing danger that the Israelis perceive will probably prompt them to find a way to get the U.S. involved in hostilities with Iran. Cheney and Bush have pretty much given them that license, with the president pledging to defend "our ally" if Israel is attacked.

All Israel has to do is to arrange to be attacked. Not a problem.

There are endless possibilities among which Israel can choose to catalyze such a confrontation – with or without a wink and a nod from Cheney and Abrams. The so-called "amber light" said to have been given to the Israelis is, I believe, already seen as quite sufficient; they are not likely to wait until it turns officially green.

So far, the resistance of the U.S. senior military has been the only real obstacle to the madness of hostilities with Iran. (And one need only read Scott Ritter's article on Truthdig this week to get a sense for why they would be chary.)

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, has been described as warning the Israelis that a "Third Front" in the Middle East would be a disaster. I think, rather, he is trying more to warn anyone who might listen in Washington.

Even if the pundits are correct in suggesting that Mullen is joined by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in trying to resist the neocons and Cheney, Mullen's tone at his press conference two weeks ago suggests he is fighting a rear-guard action – against the "crazies" in the White House.

And when is the last time the crazies lost a battle with such implications for Israel?

Seatbelts On Please...

From Tel Aviv it appears an increasingly threatening situation, with more urgent need to "embed" (so to speak) the U.S. even more deeply in the region – in a confrontation involving both countries with Iran.

A perfect storm is brewing:

-- Petraeus ex Machina, with a record of doing Vice President Cheney's bidding, takes command of CENTCOM in September;

-- Sen. McCain's numbers are likely to be in the toilet at that point (because of the economy as much as anything else);

-- McCain will be seen by the White House as the only candidate with something to gain by a wider war (just as by another "terrorist incident");

-- The Bush/Cheney months will be down to three;

-- And Maliki will not be able to cave in to Washington on the timeline requirement he has set.

In sum, the Israelis are likely to be preparing a September/October surprise designed to keep the U.S. bogged down in Iraq and in the wider region by provoking hostilities with Iran.

The Israeli leaders may well plead for understanding and claim that with their night-goggles, they could not distinguish amber from green.

Would they hesitate? Please tell me who ... just who is likely to turn on the siren, pull them over, and give them a ticket?


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Ray McGovern's Bio

Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years – from the John F. Kennedy administration to that of George H. W. Bush.

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