And the winner in Iraq is…

And the winner in Iraq is…

Posted: Friday, July 25, 2008 8:59 pm
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

By DOUGLAS COHN and ELEANOR CLIFT WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., says his goal is to win the war in Iraq while Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., promises only to end the war in Iraq. This difference of one word has enormous implications and could set the direction of U.S. policy in the region for some time depending on who prevails in the November election. The word “win” is as open to mischievous interpretation, reminiscent of President Bill Clinton famously questioning the meaning of the word “is” during the interrogation of his personal life. Winning in the context of the Iraq War depends on what the objective is, whether it’s to keep the peace overall in the country, or to keep the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki in power, or insure a stable, power-sharing government responsive to Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. The situation on the ground has changed dramatically since U.S. troops fought their way to Baghdad in the spring of 2003. It was a war then; now it’s an occupation. The mission has shifted from defeating an army to defeating an insurgency, and the latter is part combat, part police action, and part nation-building. Using the word “win” in isolation is meaningless. It’s hollow rhetoric, just as earlier phrases “stay the course” and “cut and run” did nothing to enhance understanding of the conflict, much less how to resolve the political standoff in Washington and in Baghdad. If there’s a winner in Iraq, it’s Prime Minister Maliki, who is increasingly looking like a benevolent strongman. Saddam was butcher, while Maliki at least for now is in the tradition of the Cold War leaders so often supported by the United States. They gave a nod to democracy, but held a firm grip on power, much as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak still does. Maliki has succeeded in balancing challenges to his power from within Iraq by opening up some distance between the Iraqi government and its U.S. sponsors. He stunned the Bush administration by publicly supporting a timeline roughly equivalent to that proposed by Obama of withdrawing U.S. combat troops over 16 months beginning in January ’09. If that’s what Maliki wants, that’s what Maliki will get. He didn’t look like much of a strongman at first, but he must be confident that he has the support of the Iraqi army, which U.S. troops have trained and are training with the goal of creating a multi-ethnic force loyal to the central government. For Maliki to trust this new Iraqi army, it’s likely that he has purged anyone of significance among the Sunni population. There may be some Sunni privates, but there probably aren’t any Sunni generals that could pose a threat. Maliki’s support is also coming from neighboring Iran, where he once lived in exile, and from his base at home of Iraqi Shiites, the majority ethnic group in the country. From the U.S. point of view, having Maliki as a strongman is not a bad outcome though it would be a stretch to call it winning. Iran’s influence is far greater and more dangerous than when President Bush launched the invasion of Iraq. Millions of Iraqis have been displaced internally and externally as a result of ethnic cleansing. And civil war still looms with Sunni and Shiite factions newly armed with U.S. weapons. Maliki has played his hand cleverly, enlisting U.S. air power to help quash his main opposition, rival Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr. If Maliki manages to stay in power, he would not tweak his patrons in the West, and he would have no design on neighboring countries. Unlike the Iraq of Saddam’s era that served as a counter-weight to Iran, Maliki’s Iraq would have to worry about being subsumed by the bigger, more powerful and potentially nuclear Iran, his erstwhile friend. Meanwhile, the question is: “Who is the winner in Iraq?” The answer is Nouri al-Maliki, and there is no debating about the meaning of “is.” Published in The Messenger 7.25.08

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