Saturday, September 29, 2007

Partition: Biden’s Bad Idea (if we divide it up, they won’t all just get along)

Much of the criticism of the Democratic-controlled Congress can be encapsulated in a single question – “why don’t they just do something!?!” – why don’t they de-fund the war? or at least pass bills that directly contradict the White House?

Well, the Dems have now“done something”, they’ve passed bill that challenges the White House’s official policy, and they actually got 20 Republicans to join them.

The vote was non-binding, but on Wed., Sept. 21, by a count of 75-23, Congress expressed its opinion that Iraq should be divided into separate Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish regions, with a weak federal government established for oil-revenue sharing. The bill runs strongly against Bush’s plans for Iraqi national unity.

The bill was officially sponsored by fledgling presidential candidate – and secretary-of-state in-waiting – Joe Biden. Among Democrats, all but Russ Feingold voted for it. At the MSNBC debate at Dartmouth just after the vote, the bill was generally warmly received. The Republicans were generally split, and, as far as I can tell, no pattern emerges among the bill supporters and detractors – the nays included administration cheerleaders like Lindsey Graham but also the dovish Chuck Hagel and the second-thoughter Lamar Alexander. Joe Liberman—whom Bush can usually be rely on—voted with his former party for partition.

Congressional independence from Bush is a good thing; however, the bill passed on Wed. was exceptionally unwise. A non-binding resolution like this one serves, in many ways, as a kind of congressional policy paper – a way to get an idea out there. In this case, partition is an exceptionally bad idea, and given that it has clearly gained currency in Congress, it is necessary to explain exactly why.

At first glance, partition is attractive for some obvious reasons.

1) A segregated Iraq is quickly becoming a reality whether Congress approves of it or not. The Iraqi civil war, unleashed after the fall of Saddam, has entailed an ethnic cleansing of various regions. The Kurds have been most successful in carving out for themselves a semi-autonomous province, and have built up a stable government – if not a particularly democratic one – where the Iraqi flag rarely flies.

2) As many in America are simply confused and fed up with sectarian violence, it’s all to easy to blissfully hope that if we’d only just divide up the warring parties and send them to their respective camps, they’d stop fighting and Iraq would be at peace.

3) A national Iraq might seem to have little rationale in the first place. The nation-state of Iraq was more or less invented in the wake of the First World War by British imperial magistrates – among them the feminist of the desert, Gertrude Bell – in way that ignored ethnic and religious divides. With no real historical raison d’être, would anyone really miss the old Iraq after we split it up?

4) Partition dictated from Washington is hardly a new idea – indeed, this has been a common strategy for stabilizing regions for the past century. Woodrow Wilson’s notion of “national determination” is not too different from Richard Holbrooke’s plans for dividing up the Balkans.

Partition is certainly attractive, but examined closely from an historical and strategic perspective, the perils of such a policy come to the fore.

1) Partition won’t stop a civil war – to the contrary.

Much of the progress that was made in the ballyhooed al-Anbar province is the result of its being an ethnically homogenous Sunni region. It’s thus useful to look at this region in imagining what rigid separatism might forebode for Iraq. The Anbar Sunnis might have rejected al-Qaeda and moved towards stability, but this does not mean that they’re anywhere closer to being able to work with the Shia-dominated parliament in Baghdad. In many ways, our arming of our new-found friends may ultimately amount to taking sides in an even broader and more violent Sunni-Shia conflict on the horizon.

The Sunnis are the Prussian of the Middle East – a small minority who think of themselves as the ruling class. Simply giving them a region might very well amount to giving them time to prepare for a violent bid for a “re-nationalization” of all of Iraq under their leadership.

2) Throughout history partition has intensified ethnic cleansing. With the defeat of Austria-Hungary and Germany in the Great War, Wilson, Llyod George, Clemenceau & Co. decided to divide up the former continental empires into nationalized statelettes – a few had some historical basis, Poland for instance, others were basically invented out of thin air, such as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

With “national determination,” it’s often difficult to determine who’s really “national.” Before the partition, many in Central Europe identified with the empires, with their religion, or else with a nation other than the newly minted one in which they are residing. – “Am I Polish, a Catholic, a German, an imperial subject?”

In all of these cases, it proved impossible to gerrymand the borders around homogeneity. Setting borders and then waiting for the right people to re-locate to the right regions is simply a euphemism for ethnic cleansing and forced-migration. With these European examples, the nations were still determining themselves for close to 30 years, ending only with the brutal expulsion of ethnic Germans, qua “Nazis,” from the former regions of Prussia in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The more recent Balkan examples yield more of the same. After the 1995 Dayton Accords, Kosovo was left under Serbian rule; however, quickly thereafter, the prospect of Washington doing some more nation-building inspired the Kosovo Liberation Army to attempt secession. The “liberation” of Kosovo – with Washington’s and NATO’s full support of course – entailed the destruction of Serbian Churches and bullying, forced-exile, and even mass-murder of ethnic Serbs whose families had lived in the region region for centuries.

If we decide to divide up Iraq into ethno-regions or statelettes, should we expect a different outcome?

3) Three new countries means three new dependents for Washington to protect.

If Washington decided to will into to being three new autonomous regions or sovereign states, it will have given itself the responsibility of guaranteeing their independence. If history is a guide, we would need to intervene again and again.

The prospect, mentioned above, of a resurgent Sunni class deciding to take back the country they feel they should rule would put Washington in a truly bizarre predicament for which no clear solution exists. Scenarios such as Iran attempting to increase its influence in a Shia region – or even attempting to subsume it outright – only become more likely after a partition.

With the European examples, the new statelettes became tid-bits to be gobbled up by the Third Reich or the Soviet Union. The Second World War itself was triggered by, on the one hand, Hitler’s grasping for the Central European nations and, on the other, Britain’s and France’s guarantees of the sovereignty of the newly-minted Poland.

* * *

There is simply no reason to believe that multiplying the political dynamics at play in Iraq will serve America’s national interest.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Leslie Gelb on Mearsheimer and Walt

I wonder what Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations thought he was doing. His review of Mearsheimer and Walt's The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy begins by comparing the lobby's influence over U.S. policy in the Middle East to Cuban groups' influence over our Cuban policy. Actually, Gelb is not comparing the Israeli lobby to the Cuban lobby--he's comparing the claims made by Mearsheimer and Walt to Fidel Castro's contention that the U.S. can't really be a democracy because a small number of Cuban expatriates shapes our policy toward Havana. Trouble is, Castro has a valid point, and Leslie Gelb, of all people, knows it.

I remember attending a lecture a few years ago at Washington University in which Gelb said that the only people who get what they want out of the Cuban embargo are the exiles and Castro, who benefits tremendously from playing off the United States and keeping his country relatively isolated from the world's financial and cultural superpower. Gelb made it quite clear that he does not support the embargo and does not consider it in the U.S. national interest. (I've Googled around and checked Nexis for other examples of Gelb saying this. The Emerging Markets Debt Report of January 16, 1996 summarizes some of Gelb's reactions after returning from a trip to Cuba:"Pressured by anti Castro Cubans in the United States, President Clinton is highly unlikely to soften the U.S. stance toward Cuba in the runup to the Nov. 1996 U.S. presidential elections, Gelb points out. But, for reasons of its own, the Castro administration isn't particularly eager to see sanctions lifted now, either. ... Gelb advocates gradually lifting the embargo, to avoid shocking the Cuban economy, and calls for increased diplomacy via U.S. Cuban military contacts and a strengthening of the trend to encourage U.S. NGOs to operate in Cuba.")

Does anyone think we would have still have an embargo on Cuba in the year 2007 were it not for the politically powerful Cuban lobby? We trade with nominally Communist China and with our old foes in Vietnam, after all. And the Europeans certainly seem to reap benefits from their trade with Cuba, benefits that we could be reaping as well. (To be sure, the Cuban exile community is not the only factor: the sugar and citrus industries also have reasons for wanting to restrict trade with Cuba. But sugar and citrus would also like to restrict trade with other Latin American countries, and we don't have outright embargoes against any of them.)

Other points in Gelb's review similarly prove the opposite of what he's trying to argue. He writes, for example,
"The main source of anti-Americanism and anti-American terrorism is America’s deep ties with highly unpopular regimes in countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, not to mention the war in Iraq," which I happen to believe is true. But why do we have those "deep ties"? In large part, as Gelb himself writes, we have them because of influential foreign lobbies: he criticizes Mearsheimer and Walt for "minimiz[ing] the lobbying influence of the Saudis and the oil companies, the other major forces on Middle East policy" and writes, "if Mearsheimer and Walt had asked policy participants over the years, they would have been told that the Saudis are the single most potent regional voice in American policy toward the gulf." All true. But it doesn't follow that if the Saudis have tremendous, and probably detrimental, influence on American foreign policy in the Middle East, the Israelis must not have similar influence. The Saudi and Israeli lobbies disagree on much--though certainly not everything--but the one does not negate the other. As Gelb concedes, "Most unbiased students of the matter would probably agree that the lobby is the single most influential force on American policy toward Israel."

Gelb also brings up the Cold War-era China Lobby, which again is an example--particularly, one would think, to someone coming from Gelb's point of view--of a foreign lobby that influenced U.S. policy for the worse. I am sure Gelb would not say that Nixon made a mistake by going to China. The Israeli lobby is not unexampled in terms of its policy influence and political clout; but the examples Gelb cites of other, similarly influential lobbies all tend to support the case Mearsheimer and Walt have been making. Yes, the Israel lobby is only doing what foreign-interest lobbies always do. But is what they do congruent with America's national interests? Gelb hardly tries to answer that question. For him, the cause is primarily moral: "As it happens, America’s commitment to Israel rests far more on moral and historical grounds than on strict strategic ones."

Gelb cites Clifford Clark's argument that "The United States and the world had a moral obligation to support a Jewish state because everyone had stood by and done nothing during the Holocaust." Allowing for the historical uniqueness of the Shoa, one would still be compelled by the logic of that argument to say that by the same token we should support the cause of Armenia, perhaps even in the future the cause of Darfur, since there too a great moral evil is taking place and America and the world are doing very little. Yet we have no national interest in Darfur and precious little in Armenia. A moral case can be made for intervention anywhere and everywhere; indeed, the neocons have predicated so much of their case for war against Iraq and intervention in the greater Middle East on such moral grounds: the plight of the Kurds, for example, and now the prospect of ethno-religious cleansing of the Sunnis once we leave Iraq. And as the Iraq episode illustrates, moralistic interventions that are not in the national interest turn out to be counterproductive for the very people they're meant to save, and they do nothing to enhance America's security--quite the opposite.

In saying all of this, I don't want to give the impression that I have no empathy for the Cubans who were expropriated and persecuted by Castro; for the nationalist Chinese who, whatever their faults, at least were anti-Communists; or for the Israelis, who have every right to defend their country and their lives. All of these groups have sound reasons for attempting to influence American policies. And of these three, Israel is the most capable of succeeding in its objectives with or without American subvention and military support: Israel has won every war she has fought and possesses a nuclear arsenal. It would be a false statement to claim that Israel would be destroyed, that there would be a second Holocaust, without American support. Israel's survival is not dependent on the success of the Israel lobby. If it were, the moral issue might trump questions of narrow national interest.

Instead, as Mearsheimer and Walt argue, the Israel lobby and the more-Likudnik-than-Netanyahu neocons here in the United States have been pushing policies that are ultimately detrimental to Israel and that run counter to America's interests. Leslie Gelb seems to be aware of this--he certainly presents evidence to that effect--but he can't bring himself to say it.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Iraq War -- the "Snakes on a Plane" of Interventions

This is the first of my reports on the conference "Troop Withdrawal: Looking Beyond Iraq" sponsored by The Independent Institute and featuring Leon T. Hadar, Ivan Eland, and David R. Henderson. First off, Leon Hadar on finding a new paradigm for dealing with the Middle East.

Leon Hadar has given us one of the aptest metaphors of the year: The Iraq war is to foreign policy what "Snakes on the Plane" is to cinema – a really bad idea that "bombed"… so to speak.

Unfortunately for us, Hollywood is much better than the U.S. government at handling disasters. With a real stinker on their hands, execs first cut their loses – i.e. release it quickly on DVD. Then, they go back to the studio and change the script. Even if Hollywood is often too eager to repeat lucrative formulas – how many indistinguishable teen horror flicks and cuddly romances with Jennifer Aniston can mankind really endure? – few would deny that the studios are highly skillful at not repeating obvious mistakes – "Snakes on a Plane," "Waterworld," and "Ishtar" have thankfully remained sui generis.

Not so with the U.S. government. Uncle Sam seems bent on reviving and remaking the most unsuccessful scripts – or at least one that simply cannot work in the contemporary world. For Hadar, this script is the British imperial project of the last two and half centuries. As with that grand institution on which the sun never set, the production costs of "America’s empire" far exceed the box-office returns.

While The Brits and the French set their empire to an Händelian tune of a "civilizing mission," Pax Americana has a "Wilsonian" soundtrack. The melody sings out that America will "make the world safe for democracy," or perhaps even install democracy by force. Underneath, there are less forthright, harmonizing lines that promise that global democracy will equal American hegemony, or at least will be "good for America."

Hadar retorts that the post-9/11 Pax Americana has not made the world safe for democracy but safe for the revival and intensification of tribal, religious, and ethno-nationalist identities. Furthermore, America’s imperial interventions have created little "Pax" and mostly succeeded in inspiring terrorism and violent resentment.

(One could certainly quibble here that in his hard-nosed "realist" framework, Hadar loses sight of the power of ideology and underestimates radical Islam – particularly as it has been defined by writers like Robert Spencer – as something more than a mere reaction to America’s meddling in Arab lands.)

While it’s now a clichéd to call America an empire – usually accompanied with much head-shaking and finger-waging – Hadar takes this comparison very seriously and integrates it into that most Hadarian of concepts, the "global paradigm."

Since 1945, the U.S. incrementally replaced Britain and France as the main imperial power – just as the U.S. subsidized and then succeeded France in South East Asia, it moved into the former Ottoman territory that had been carved up by the British.

For Hadar, whatever rationale Pax Americana had during the Cold War, it has little today, and will continue to unravel as the world transitions from a bipolar to a multi-polar global paradigm – the unipolar world dreamed up by Charles Krauthammer is a mirage, or at most, a "moment" that has past.

Even if Pax Americana is costly and unsustainable, this does not stop the U.S. from pursuing what amounts to imperial projects. Of these, Hadar focused on the U.S.’s designs for controlling the oil in the Middle East by having a large military presence throughout the region. This is not done so much to line the pockets of the oil companies (although this motive should not be dismissed out of hand) but to control the source of energy for America’s future competitive rivals.

When many talk of "energy independence," they seem to assume that the U.S. is supinely reliant on a collection of shifty-eyed Saudi Princes and/or Ba’athist dictators for those SUVs to keep running. The fact is, the U.S., for intents and purposes, already has energy independence from the Middle East. Only 12 percent of the U.S. energy comes from the Middle East and of this, only three percent from Iraq and Kuwait. Contra Greenspan, "controlling the oil" in the Middle East is entirely unnecessary.

It’s a different story for the established European powers, Japan – and, most importantly, the rising powers of China and India. From Hadar’s Realpolitik perspective, he speculates that the U.S. seeks to control the rising powers’ source of oil – being that China’s energy needs are mushrooming, the very prospect of perfidious Uncle Sam doing such a thing will not exactly please Bejing.

Putting aside any moral questions of occupying the Middle East to get at China, Hadar argues that the U.S. drive for oil hegemony is misguided. Given that the various dynamics and conflicts in the Middle East will make the region highly unstable for the foreseeable future, America’s empire amounts to the U.S. military being forced to deal with problems that have little to do with America’s national interest. Given that China, India, Europe, and Japan all have much more at stake in the region, America’s empire amounts to Washington’s sending American soldiers to die for causes that have much more to do with the energy needs of foreign powers than American security.

After the conference, Hadar mentioned to me that he thought that France’s Sarkozy and Kouchner are eager to talk of "confronting Iran" not because they’re closet neocons – as yours truly has speculated – but because they want to keep Uncle Sam’s eyes on Iran, to keep the notion that Iran is a threat to the world swirling within Americans’ heads, so that Wahsington – and not Paris – will be the one to do something if a problem arises. France can thus continue to outsource its foreign policy – and spend the dividend on guaranteed six-week vacations and public laser-light shows. I personally think Hadar goes too far here, but this speculation is helpful in crystallizing his fundamental point.

How can Washington change course? Firstly, it must form concrete political objectives. Hadar’s focus in this regard was the prospect of opening up talks with Syria, in building a "diplomatic road to Damascus." If Washington can cease worrying about the fact that Syria is not exactly democratic and drop the whole "Islamofascism" nonsense, Washington can wake up to the fact Syria desires a stable, viable Lebanon – which was the very reason for its thirty-year occupation of the country – that it could work as a Sunni counterweight to Iran, and that it would be willing to help stabilize Iraq.

Interestingly, Hadar does not see the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group as offering much of a real alternative – even if he agrees with many of its recommendations. For Hadar, ISG amounts to a fantasy of returning to the cost-free Pax Americana of the 90s: "if we just leave Iraq, then everyone will love us again and we can rule the region." But those Dances with Wolves-The English Patient days are over, and it would be impossible to film a sequel whether we exit Iraq now or not. The global paradigm has changed, and this means that we need to work hard at writing a new script.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Groton Boys Can't Lose

The Financial Times has a brief discussion of (among other things) the nexus of class and foreign policy in an interview with Louis Auchincloss this weekend. It's worth a quote:

“I used to say to my father,” he says, “ ‘If my class at Yale ran this country, we would have no problems.’ And the irony of my life is that they did.” He pauses before invoking a 20th-century American foreign-policy who’s who: “There was Cy Vance, Bill Scranton, Ted Beale, both Bundys, Bill and McGeorge – they all got behind that war in Vietnam and they pushed it as far as they could. And we lost a quarter of a million men. They were all idealistic, good, virtuous,” says Auchincloss, “the finest men you could find. It was the most disillusioning thing that happened in my life.”

Auchincloss has struggled to understand just how their shared patrician background could have produced this disconnect. And the answer would appear to be that wars are lost, if not always made, on the playing fields of New England. “Bill Bundy and I shared a study at Groton, and one day he came in from a football game, and I said: ‘Who won?’ and he said: ‘We lost,’ and then he burst into tears. You cannot lose. Groton cannot lose. That’s what they believed in, no matter what,” explains Auchincloss. “They all would have all been willing to die, if they hadn’t already been in high positions. They believed America cannot lose. We stand for every virtue and right that’s in the world.”

I'm reminded that George Kennan, a Milwaukee boy, always felt like an outsider in such company. But I wouldn't say that the hubris Auchincloss describes is peculiar to the old East Coast elite. Bush's own pedigree aside, the present administration is no WASP preserve, yet a parallel belief in American invincibility and innocence, albeit in cruder form, has long prevailed among the president's popular conservative base. The WASPs came out of the Vietnam era disillusioned not just with the war and America's role in the world but with their own identities. Will something similar happen to conservatives--or ex-conservatives, as may then be the case?

They're talking about exit strategies -- and Exit-Strategies!

On a day that Exit-Strategies was linked on one of the most popular conservative blogs, The Independent Institute hosted an excellent conference on -- exit strategies. Leon Hadar, Ivan Eland, and David Henderson presented talks on forming a new paradigm for dealing with the Middle East, the lack of justification for “protecting the oil” with the military -- and why wars in the Middle East aren't "just about the oil" -- and the prospects for political de-centralization and partition in Iraq. These talks coincided with the release of longer white papers by the authors.

Each talk deserves a full report, and in the next two days, I’ll do my best to convey some of the more interesting moments.

More to come…

The Soft Sell

The New Republic was the most important center-left periodical to endorse the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Since at least the 1980s, the magazine has been a comfortable home for liberal hawks. In 2004, TNR's editors went so far as to endorse Joe Lieberman for the Democratic presidential nomination -- about two years before Lieberman's pro-war stance cost him the Democratic Senate nomination in Connecticut.

While many liberal hawks and neoconservatives remain on its masthead, the New Republic has recently been rethinking some of its foreign policy positions. This editorial endorsing soft partition as a way out of Iraq is part of that process. It expresses skepticism about the prospects for Iraqi "reconciliation" in any politically feasible timeframe. It treats the Bush administration's war aims as essentially unachievable. And it acknowledges that at some point in the not too distant future, the political pressure for leaving Iraq will become difficult to ignore.

So TNR advises that we let the major ethnoreligious factions in Iraq go their own way. That means adopting a plan to "radically devolve power to Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish regional governments with a central government securing the borders and parceling out oil revenues." As the editors note, this idea has broad bipartisan support. Democratic Sen. Joe Biden and Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, both candidates for their parties' respective presidential nomination, each have plans along these lines. Partition has advocates among pundits across the ideological spectrum.

I'd like to favor a soft partition myself. The idea dispenses with the polite fiction that there is in fact a large number of Iraqis committed to a common cause or country. It is a "third way" approach aimed at mitigating the consequences of our invasion and eventual withdrawal, both for U.S. national prestige and for the Iraqis who might otherwise become victims in a humanitarian disaster. It has become more realistic as sectarian violence has made previously mixed cities more homogeneous. And even some surge supporters are willing, in effect, to go along.

Yet I'm skeptical. TNR acknowledges the pitfalls: "Aside from the Kurds and one Shia party (the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council), none of the main Iraqi players have any interest in carving up the country. The status of Baghdad would pose a Jerusalem-like obstacle to any federal agreement, to say nothing of the details of oil-sharing and shared security. If the plan failed to thread any of these needles, it could inflame sectarian tensions rather than calm them." If those are the obstacles in Iraq, the fact that soft partition could create a bipartisan consensus in Washington sounds rather less reassuring.

Such a plan would also require us to maintain large numbers of troops in Iraq for several more years, potentially increasing the risks that the conflict will spread to Iran and putting more American lives in danger. Certainly for it to be deemed preferable to withdrawal we would need a better indication that a soft partition can work -- and can be facilitated by the United States -- than the fact that we can get both Democrats and Republicans to support it.

UPDATE: AmSpec's John Tabin responds here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Les Neocons

Evidence is mounting that last May France inadvertently elected a neocon as president of the republic! (Well, not quite but we should be worried.)

Most recently, Nicolas Sarkozy’s new foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, announced in an interview that with regard to Iran and their nuclear ambitions, We have to prepare for the worst, and the worst is war."

His mention that "We must negotiate right to the end…" doesn’t strike me as particularly reassuring.

Such rhetoric isn’t too different from Bush’s in 2002, when he was claiming that we’d have to invade Iraq as a last resort:

"If we allow [Saddam to go nuclear], a terrible line would be crossed. […] He would be in a position to threaten America.

"Understanding the threats of our time, knowing the designs and deceptions of the Iraqi regime, we have every reason to assume the worst, and we have an urgent duty to prevent the worst from occurring. […] I hope this will not require military action, but it may."

(Later this rhetoric would shift to the glories of democratization, but this was the original pitch.)

Drawing lines in the sand is entirely necessary in foreign-policy making; however, both Bush and Kouchner drew only those lines that they fully expected their adversaries to cross. Bush already had all that great intelligence about Saddam’s WMD (that we’re still searching for); Kouchner should expect Iran to pursue a nuclear device as countermeasure to the very saber-rattling he’s been indulging in.

Kouchner’s mention that "We must negotiate right to the end…" is almost a Freudian slip—clearly, he presumes that there will be an end to the negotiations.

Kouchner’s hawkishness should not come as any surprise. The founder of Doctors Without Borders, Kouchner is known as a man of the Left; however, in his short tenure, he’s been more than willing to team up with the Bush administration in Iraq and has even gestured toward the possibility of France’s rejoining NATO’s military command.

(This later gesture is particularly surprising as not only is NATO one of the favorite bête noirs of the Euro-Left, but a reversal on this matter would seem an affront to French pride. In 1966 Charles de Gaulle removed France from NATO command because he felt that no French soldier should ever be under the authority of a foreign officer—particularly one of les Anglo-Saxons.)

Kouchner’s coziness with Bush should not come as any surprise. Kouchner supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Paul Berman—another pro-war Lefty—praised Kouchner to the sky in his recent book Power and the Idealists as an heroic dissonant and scolds the rest of his fellow Leftists for not marching in step with the latest advance in secular humanism that was the Iraq war.

(As an aside, the fact that Richard Holbrooke—the secretary of state in waiting for a Clinton or Obama presidency—wrote the forward to Power and the Idealistsis more than enough evidence that even in the Dems take office, more interventionism will be in store. Those who support the Democrats out of isolationist or realist sympathies should beware.)

When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in May, his choice of Kouchner appeared to be a sign of his willingness to reach out to the French Left and form a truly national government. It’s beginning to look more like Sarko wanted to reach out to the neocons—or the interventionist neoliberals who are their Doppelgänger on most issues.

I was quite excited by Sarko’s election, and I’m still willing to give him a chance. But so far, many of his foreign-policy moves strike me as ominous.

Partisans Reviewed

The current issue of The National Interest has a very interesting symposium that addresses many of the topics we've been discussing lately. Grover Norquist is one of the symposiasts, and while I had known that he was a realist, I had never before seen him write as an analyst--rather than as a tax-reduction advocate and Republican partisan. His remarks are well worth reading. A taste: here Norquist reinforces a point that Jim Antle has recently made on this blog:

While there were reasons to believe that America might benefit from rethinking its policy vis-à-vis Iraq, all such debate within the Republican Party was shut down for the bulk of 2006 in order to avoid advantaging the Democrats in the November elections. Partisan loyalty has created a stickiness in moving to—or even suggesting—different strategies. On the Democratic side, there is more attention paid to how to damage Bush and the Republicans than to what the United States should and should not be doing in Mesopotamia and its environs.

The blind partisan loyalty of the bases of both political parties is not conducive to creating a serious foreign policy.

From there, Norquist notes how media polarization has affected this trend and the role that lobbies have played: national ethnic lobbies advancing their own interests, military contracting lobbies out for themselves, etc. No lobby exists, and perhaps no interest group can possibly exist, that concerns itself strictly with a realistic foreign policy.

(Norquist also makes the claim that there is "no national lobby for a strong military," because contractors' lobbies put individual companies above the military's need for "new planes, ships, and tanks." This is a curious statement, since obviously there are companies whose interest is precisely in the building of new planes, ships, and tanks, often new planes, ships, and tanks that the military itself does not want. Norquist has fallen into slogan-think here: the cause of military "strength," as conventionally understood, is not underserved by lobbyists; rather, the cause of military prudence is friendless. More tanks, planes, and ships do not necessarily amount to a sounder foreign policy--on the contrary, an abundance of such things encourages the Madeleine Albright mentality which asks "Why have a military if we're not going to use it?")

Although Norquist ends on a hopeful note, looking forward to the day when think tanks are once again concerned with the public interest and not with partisan politics, his penultimate paragraph suggests what might have to happen before we get a serious foreign-policy discussion in this country:

The present partisan stalemate is unlikely to change until one party breaks through and becomes dominant, as the FDR coalition did after 1934. This will free the majority party to create a position devoid of the extreme fringes currently needed to compete in the evenly matched partisan fight. The party out of power will have the time and focus to think not only about foreign policy in the abstract but also to confront and challenge the ruling party’s approach to the world.

Unfortunately, that majority party will probably be the Democrats, the way things are going now. And I don't share Norquist's confidence that even with both parties secure in majority and minority status we would get a realistic reconsideration of our warmaking and diplomacy. But one can always hope.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Grand Unification Theory

"And tonight, our moral and strategic imperatives are one: We must help Iraq defeat those who threaten its future and also threaten ours."

For a long time now, a certain "grand unification" trope has marked the rhetoric of George W. Bush. In Thursday night's address to the nation, it was in full force. For the president, two things that may in fact have little in common—say, strategic imperatives and abstract morality—are the same—indeed, unified!

What? You think protecting the homeland from terrorist attacks and engaging in regime-change and a long-term occupation of a foreign power don’t seem to be compatible? It all makes sense once you understand that our cold, Machiavellian calculus leads us to what we always knew was true in our heart!

Much of grand unification can be accomplished by simply defining national interest and "strategic imperatives" in the fuzziest and hokiest manner possible. The United States, as nanny to the world, must support all those "young democracies" among which Iraq is the one we really care about. This feels good, but it says nothing about the consequences of invading and upturning a country, even less about the kind of policies a country will pursue once its demos is given the vote.

More Bushian logic: we need a "free" Iraq because this will inherently be "good for America." What, you say that a free Iraq might decide that its interests are not the same—perhaps even opposed—to America’s? --Basta with the pessimism! Don’t you understand that democracy and American interests are one!

That such rhetoric and logic dominated Bush’s speech is evidence of a certain Gersonian legacy amongst current White House speech-writers. Michael Gerson was the mind behind Bush’s Second Inaugural and coined (or really likes to claim to have coined) much that is quintessentially Bushian—"compassionate conservatism," "tyranny of low expectation," and some more one-liners so maudlin I can’t bear to reproduce them here.

Saint Michael might have left the White House in 2006; however, his rhetorical tropes have remained. Indeed, Gersonian rhetoric seems indestructible: no matter how bad Iraq gets, no matter how little support Bush musters among the public, few in the White House seem capable of thinking outside the Gersonian box of grand unification. The man who wrote "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," and "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands" could have penned Thursday night’s speech. The same cadences, the same sentimentality as a substitute for logic, it’s all still there.

For all the talk of a new strategy, the same two or three half-formed ideas are still swirling around inside George Bush’s head.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

GOP Candidates Wanted -- No Doves Need Apply

One of my co-bloggers asked me a very interesting question: Why does the Republican Party frequently work so hard to stamp out candidates who agree with a majority of Americans on the Iraq war? This question is even more relevant now that Chuck Hagel, the leading Republican war critic in the Senate, has announced his retirement -- especially in light of reports that GOP bigshots helped Hagel's pro-war primary challenger behind the scenes. As I recently observed in The American Conservative, Walter Jones and other antiwar Republicans face similar pressure from the party.

Hagel's decision not to run again may actually put the Nebraska Senate seat in play if Bob Kerrey decides to run as the Democratic candidate. Jon Bruning would have a hard time beating Kerrey, though Agriculture Secretary -- and former Governor -- Mike Johanns could make it a dogfight. Kerrey is arguably more hawkish on Iraq than Hagel, which raises a second question: Since the Democrats have had success running pro-war and antiwar candidates depending on the local political climate, why can't the Republicans do something similar?

There are probably a lot of reasons for this. For one, hawks now play a bigger role in the GOP coalition than they did in the 1990s, when noninterventionist conservatives were somewhat more influential. Secondly, Republicans place a high premium on party loyalty, making them more likely to support policies -- especially wars -- pursued by GOP presidents. But I think a major reason is simple politics.

The reality is that a majority of Republicans still favors staying the course in Iraq, whatever that actually means. This view is even more pronounced among self-described conservatives. GOP politicians who deviate from the pro-war position are going against the grain of the party's base. Meanwhile, Democrats and antiwar independents seem to have decided that an individual politician's position on the war is less important than whether they belong to the pro- or antiwar party (leaving aside for the moment whether the Democrats can really be described as an antiwar party). So Republicans who break ranks on the war face problems with the base but don't seem to win many friends among swing voters.

Admittedly, the sample size is very small but it isn't obvious that being an antiwar Republican is yet an electoral asset. Lincoln Chafee was the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the war and was the chamber's most liberal GOP member. But when Rhode Island voters wanted to punish someone for the war and other Bush policies, they turned Chafee out of office anyway. U.S. Reps. Jim Leach of Iowa and John Hostettler of Indiana both went down to defeat in 2006 despite voting against the war -- Hostettler even ran an ad touting his antiwar vote and lost to a pro-war Democratic challenger (though he did win reelection twice since voting against the war.)

Most of the Republicans turning against the war in the Senate hail from the moderate to liberal wing of the party. They rely more heavily on Democrats and swing voters for their support, and thus feel pressured to take an "independent" stand. But possible primary troubles keep them from getting too independent. Of the GOP Iraq critics in the Senate, only Hagel, Oregon's Gordon Smith, and recently Olympia Snowe will actually vote for antiwar legislation. So far Richard Lugar, John Warner, and Susan Collins won't.

In the House, the antiwar Republicans are about evenly divided between dissident conservatives and Rockefellerite liberals. But only four -- Jones, Ron Paul, John Duncan, and Wayne Gilchrest -- consistently vote for antiwar legislation. And even they divide. Paul and Duncan are willing to vote to defund the war, but they don't favor congressional timelines for withdrawal. Jones and Gilchrest support timelines but won't vote to defund the war. (Duncan, by the way, seems to be an exception to the rule that antiwar Republicans get into political trouble.)

That doesn't necessarily mean that there are no real divisions among Republicans on Iraq. While David Freddoso may be overstating the case to call Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich "war doubters, " he is nevertheless on to something. In the current field, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are unambiguously committed to the current Iraq strategy while Fred Thompson certainly seems to be leaning in that direction. But Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Sam Brownback, to name three, are keeping their options open without breaking openly with the president. Even Tom Tancredo, who has made casual comments about bombing Mecca, has expressed doubts about the surge and an open-ended occupation.

None of these quibbles from the non-Paul candidates goes very far, and it is worth noting that only one of the top-tier candidates seems less than sold on the present strategy. But it does suggest that public opinion could eventually play a bigger role in creative GOP candidates' thinking about the war.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Planning for Defeat

George Packer's recent New Yorker piece taking a hard look at how we can get out of Iraq has been linked on many blogs already, but it's important enough to merit another. And I'd particularly like to draw attention to this passage:

...what if there is no such thing as a “responsible exit” from Iraq? This is the view of Stephen Biddle, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who spent the spring in Iraq, as part of a strategic-assessment team of military and civilian experts. He said, “When you look at the spectrum of policy approaches in Iraq right now, the extremes”—maintaining the largest force possible or pulling out immediately—“make more sense than the middle.” The “middle-ground policies,” he argued, “tend to dramatically reduce our ability to control the environment militarily, because they all involve withdrawing about half of the troops. It’s our combat activity that’s currently capping violence around the country, and almost everybody would cut that out—which means the violence is only going to increase. And yet they leave tens of thousands of Americans in the country, to act as targets. Continued U.S. casualties, continued deterioration of the situation all around them: within two or three years, that’s going to generate powerful pressure to go all the way to the zero option. Why not do it sooner, and save the seven to eight hundred lives you’re going to lose to walk through this drill in the meantime?”
The middle-of-the-road strategy, of course, is just what we're most likely to get. I can well see that a botched gradual draw down of our troops will lead to a prolonged deteriorating security situation, stretching well into the next administration, and leading ultimately to a Vietnam-style evacuation. Biddle is right: we're a lot better off if we leave quickly.

Monday, September 10, 2007

De-Ba'ath Spat

There’s a new Bush biography on the market, Dead Certain by Roger Draper. From all accounts, it looks to be of the "sympathetic portrayal of a flawed but decent man" variety—a less ideological bio than David Frum’s and Fred Barnes’s; less gushing than Midge Dector’s "personal portrait" of Rumsfeld, less vacuous than Paul Kengor’s exegesis of Bushian spirituality.

Overall, Draper makes the duh-we-already-knew-that argument that Dubya is really, really certain about lots of stuff and that this can be good and bad—often really, really bad.

This is not a volume I think I could bear reading all the way through, but it looks to be useful in that it offers a few controversial nuggets of insider gossip that will get discussed for a news cycle or two.

The two tidbits that have attracted the most attention have been Bush’s plans for his post-White House years—he wants to hang out in Big D and "replinsh the ol’ coffers" giving inane speeches—and the revelation—incredible in my view—that John Roberts was the mind behind the Harriet Meirs nomination.

Most relevant to EXIT-STRATEGIES is the very revealing spat the book has occasioned between Bush and L. Paul Bremer, the former director of reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. The two have been arguing in the media over who exactly ordered de-Ba’athification and the dismantling of the Iraqi army.

This is hardly an academic question, as it is now generally recognized that both of these were disastrous and completely unnecessary decisions. (Thomas Ricks’s devastating analysis in Fiasco has had the most to do with building up this consensus.)

To Draper, Bush claimed, "The policy had been to keep the army intact; didn’t happen." When Draper asked Bush what he thought about Bremer’s policies, Bush replied, "Yeah, I can’t remember, I’m sure I said, "This is the policy, what happened?’"

Bremer responded by showing the Times letters that strongly suggest that Bush and the administration were well aware of the de-Ba’ath plans and, indeed, supported them.

[More recently, he’s penned an op-ed essentially arguing that he had no choice in dismantling the Iraqi army.]

In a spat over the question of whether one or all were incompetent, something very important has been lost.

Not mentioned by Bush or Bremer is that just after the fall of Saddam in May of 2003, Gen. Jay Garner (now retired), who was then commanding the occupation, recommended withdrawing American troops and allowing the Iraqis themselves to sort out their affairs. This plan might have led to some bloodshed; it most certainly would have involved a major power struggle. But then it also would have bestowed responsibility on the remaining members of the Iraqi civil service and been strong incentive for them to stabilize their own country.

But it seems that neither Bremer, the administration, the State Department, nor the Pentagon were able to think about Iraq outside that heady paradigm of nation-building. Garner rightly intuited that a stable state and viable civil society will only arise in Iraq once Uncle Sam gets out.

Petraeus and Procrastination

As we await General Petraeus’s report to congress, news is already breaking about what to expect. According to the paper of record:

"The top American commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, has recommended that decisions on the contentious issue of reducing the main body of the American troops in Iraq be put off for six months, American officials said Sunday."

If the Times report is to be believed, it seems that the Bushies have won a limited victory. (Perhaps the Dems sensed this, as they have been noticeably talking-down the report over the weekend.)

For months the administration has been telling us, “Just a wait a few months until the Petraeus Report, and in the mean time, support the troops!" – (read, don’t question the rationale of U.S. foreign policy.)

Now it seems that Petraeus will open up more space for the administration to say, “just a wait a few months until some other is report is presented in March, and in the mean time, support the troops!"

The Times claims that Petraeus will speak of his plans for a small drawdown by December of this year, but then serious discussion of a clear exit-strategy does not seem to be in the cards.

"The general has also said that it is too soon to present recommendations on reducing American forces below that level because the situation in Iraq is in flux." [emphasis added]

“The situation is in flux" would be a good talking point for the Bushies, a good way to further avoid any kind of serious debate about war aims, what constitutes a victory, and how in the hell we’re going to get out of this mess.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Allawi and the Sunni Strategy

In my last post, I discussed how the recent rise Ayad Allawi has brought up rather unpleasant memories of Washington’s king-making in the past. Beyond Vietnam, Diem, and all that, there is also a pressing question of what Allawi’s second life might have to do with what Seymore Hersh has called Washington’s tactical "redirection."

First, a little recent history.

Allawi’s original stint in the prime minister’s chair came to an end with the election of 2005—that brief, shining moment for Bush’s dream of democratizing the Middle East—as he handed off the PM post to Nouri al-Maliki. At the time some perceptive commentators grasped that the 2005 election was not so much a victory for "the people" as one for the Iraqi Shia who constitute a broad majority and thus naturally have much to gain from any kind of democratic system. Al-Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, which won the day, is explicitly Shi’ite in its organization and philosophy just as Saddam’s Ba’ath Party was the party for the Sunni).

In turn, the 2005 Shia victory meant increased influence for Iran where Shia Islam is firmly in the saddle. It should have thus come as no surprise that Tehran—the staunchest of enemies of the Untied States—nonetheless diplomatically recognized the Quisling government in Baghdad. Tehran did this not out of some deep admiration for democracy but simply because it grasped that it had much to gain with the Shia in charge.

Instead of choosing to work with Iran—a government which clearly also wants a stable state to emerge in Iraq—Washington has instead made Tehran numero uno on its hit-list.

In turn, the Bushies in the media have made a concerted effort to de-emphasize the dysfunctional democracy in Baghdad and sing the praises of progress being made in Sunni regions, most especially Anbar province where Bush recently made a presidential visit. (Lindsey Graham has been particularly assiduous in stressing this point in his Sunday morning appearances).

In this line, the usual suspects have emphasized that Sunnis who were formerly part of the insurgency have been essentially switching sides and backing U.S. forces.

While this is sounds like good news, it would disastrous if Washington decides to integrate this Sunni rapprochement into some kind of "redirection" strategy against Shia Iran.

How Allawi might function within all this is far from clear. Allawi himself is a Shia muslim—albeit a secular nationalist and one who was once a prominent member of the almost entirely Sunni Ba’ath Party. At the very least, he seems more than willing to work with Washington, and this can make him very useful if the powers that be decied to get rid of al-Maliki.

If Bush, Cheney & Co. really want to take the neocons’ advice and bomb Iran before the end of the term, then in installing Allawi, they might not just be searching for someone to end petty sectarian squabbling in the capital but someone to fortify Iraq as they open up a new front.

Petraeus and Partisanship

Matt Drudge is reporting that after delivering his report to Congress tomorrow, General Petraeus (along with Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq) will give an exclusive live interview to Fox News at 9 pm.

One of the charges that has already been made against Petraeus is that he's a politicized general, a salesman for the administration's Iraq policy. As Lawrence Korb writes in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, "Petraeus continues to be used by the administration--willingly or unwillingly--for partisan political purposes. When many Democrats and some Republicans criticize the president's latest strategy in Iraq, Bush and his political allies argue that the strategy is not theirs but that of General Petraeus--and that by confirming him, the Senate essentially endorsed the current approach, obligating it to give 'Petraeus' strategy' a chance to succeed."

Given that criticism, is it really wise to send Petraeus onto the cable news network that is widely perceived as sympathetic to the administration? It's as if the administration is already conceding that the Petraeus report is only going to be believed by the hard core of Republican supporters of the war. If that's the case, the point of this public relations exercise seems to be to rally the base, rather than build broad support for the surge or (least of all) get an accurate, factual assessment of what's happening on the ground. Polls show the general public certainly doesn't put much credence in the report.

For more on Petraeus, see Andrew Bacevich's recent piece in the New Republic. As for his report, the Washington Post and other outlets have cited the GAO's skepticism about its accounting methods. The report--which has been written by the White House, not Petraeus's own staff--is a whitewash from start to finish. What's mildly surprising, though, is the very modest ambitions the White House seems to have for this effort: to string along the base for a few months more, without giving anyone else even pause for thought. Even the p.r. war is lost, yet the ground war won't end until either the White House faces reality or Congress decides to pull the plug--yet there's no political will for either of those actions. Both parties want to evade the responsibility for "losing" the war, but each knows that there is no prospect of "winning" it, either. So the quagmire continues...

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Republican Regrets

The new issue (Sept. 10) of National Review carries a short piece by Ramesh Ponnuru in which he offers some suggestions in hindsight for how the Republicans might have minimized their losses in 2006. Ponnuru rejects the idea that the Iraq invasion was a political mistake since, after all, the war served Republicans pretty well in 2002 and 2004. (Sound cynical? Ponnuru offers this disclaimer: "It should go without saying that it would be grossly immoral to launch an unnecessary war to win an election, or to flinch from a necessary one for fear of losing one." The latter part of that sentence seems to me a sly way of insinuating that Iraq was a necessary war, without actually taking up the challenge of making the case.)

Ponnuru has two common-sense suggestions for how, having got us into the desert in the first place, the Republicans could at least have put themselves in a better position: they could have put Ahmad Chalabi in charge from the get-go, to make it less obviously an occupation; and Bush should have fired Rumsfeld in 2006 and begun the surge a year earlier.

These are, from a strategic and political perspective, fair points, but they don't go nearly far enough. The first suggestion is so obvious--it's the very thing that I, and many others, expected Bush to do at the conclusion of the invasion--that it actually raises a more important question than it answers: why Bush didn't take this route of installing a Saddam-lite dictator is precisely what pro-war conservatives need to address. But the answer to that question would hit too close to home for many in the conservative movement: Bush, like many neoconservatives and "neo-Reaganite" conservative intellectuals, seemingly does at some level believe in democracy, as well as in a nigh-infallible American know-how that would allow us to occupy a country for months and years and, in so doing, actually advance it along a course to freedom. It's a mindset that emerges when Fukuyama's "end of history" meets Madeline Albright's "indispensable nation."

Conservatives who favored the war from the outset might have been able to minimize its political (and, more importantly, strategic and human) damage had they been willing to reject this blatantly ideological construct. But they didn't. I can see three reasons for that: first, it would have entailed friction with the neoconservatives (and even, by implication, an acknowledgment that paleoconservative criticisms of "nation building" were right all along -- a concession that might open questions about the validity of the war in the first place); second, it would have created friction with the Hitchens / Berman pro-war Left, breaking the grand ideological coalition in support of the war; and, third, it might have prompted the American public to consider more seriously the less-than-idealistic intentions of the U.S., which again could have led to dissension and loss of support for the invasion, as well as for the Republicans. In short, this practical criticism, so sensible in light of four years' hindsight, would have been "off message" in 2003.

Even from a hawkish perspective, all that idealistic talk of democracy and human rights, which admittedly was not the primary reason the war's advocates originally offered for the invasion, was detrimental. Such language is not, of course, the traditional vocabulary of the Right -- though actually, it is: it was Reagan's vocabulary and, to a lesser extent, Goldwater's too. Neither of those men would have actually gone through with an attempt to foster democracy like this, but it's time to step back and admit that the rights-based, democratic rhetoric so beloved of the Right and the Left creates a psychological pressure to live up such lofty ideals. The consequence is what we see in Iraq, as well as the political blowback here at home.

A necessary question, then, is what action would Ponnuru propose now in order to prevent this situation from happening again? Is he prepared to launch into a very hard critique of the democratist Right? I suspect not: but if not, his suggestion that Bush should have opted for a strong man is idle.

There is, of course, the further point that a strong man--especially Chalabi, a crook with ties to Iran, distrusted by just about everyone--would have entailed a different set of problems for Iraq and for America. If he were as brutal and effective at keeping the country together as Saddam had been, there would be quite a lot of buzz back here in the U.S. about the hypocrisy of trading one dictator for another: again, conservatives would have had to fall back to national-interest rhetoric, and that may not have helped the Republicans so much in 2004. Things may have gone even worse: suppose Chalabi had been ruthless but ineffective. Would Bush have removed him, leading to the same outcome we now have (only somewhat worse all around), or would Bush and the Republicans have gone into 2004 as having set up a dictator in Iraq who couldn't be trusted by us and who was leading Iraq into a civil war? I don't think that scenario would have played out very well for the GOP in 2004. Just look at how much the resounding, but unresolved, success of the 1991 Gulf War helped George H.W. Bush in 1992.

For Ponnuru's first piece of advice to have worked, hawks inside and out of the administration would have had to have been more pragmatic and less idealistic, and things would have had to have gone just swimmingly well in Iraq to make the issue a boon for the GOP. Neither of those outcomes would have had much prospect.

As for the second suggestion, yes, there was a point in 2006 at which Bush, with the support of the conservative movement and Republican base, could have sacked Rumsfeld and announced he was sending more troops. to Iraq. But I can't see that either action would have markedly improved the GOP's chances that November. Both measures would have testified that even Bush knew that he had botched the war, a concession that would not exactly have hurt the Democrats. More importantly, however, it might well have made 2006 a referendum on whether to escalate this mismanaged war by supporting the GOP and sending more troops to Iraq or to de-escalate the war by supporting the Democrats. I think we know how Democrats would have responded to that question, and I strongly suspect that independents would have answered it the same way. Firing Rummy and throwing more troops into the fray would not have redeemed the war in the eyes of the American public.

Having made all of these criticisms, let me say that I do appreciate Ponnuru asking these questions and considering the counterfactuals--this is something that all conservatives, indeed all informed Americans, ought to be doing, whether they are pro-war or antiwar. But it's not enough to provide pat, common-sense answers: we have to look more deeply at why the war developed, politically and militarily, as it did, and whether such minor variations to the theme as those that Ponnuru suggests would have significantly improved matters. Turning the country over to Chalabi and drawing down the American presence--better yet, getting out--would have been far better for our own country, if for no other reason than that we would have had fewer of our men and women killed over the past four years. But, without saying that the way things happened was banusic and inevitable, I do think the ideological tendencies of the conservative movement and the American government made the outcome we actually got the most likely of them all. That's why a reconsideration has to be much more thoroughgoing -- and must ask whether this war was really worth fighting in the first place.

Our Once and Future S.O.B.

His name was Ayad Allawi. He was a former Ba’athist and certified tough guy appointed by Washington as the interim prime minister of Iraq. Newsweek dubbed him "our new s.o.b.” Rumors abounded of summary executions; some even speculated about a rather Saddam-esque dictatorship emerging in Baghdad.

With the 2005 election and the waving of purple fingers, he went down a memory hole. But Alawi is now very much back in the news, and it’s again become necessary to speculate on who this cagey, obviously ambitious man really is.

The first thing to note is that Allawi is mounting his comeback in Washington, not in Bahgdad. In the past few weeks, he’s penned an op-ed for the Washington Post on his "plan for Iraq” and contracted the DC lobbying firm Barbour Griffin & Rogers, which has long had ties to the GOP. Barbour has recently purchased the domain name for the launch of some kind of Internet propaganda campaign, the character of which is still uncertain.

Most likely, Allawi has his heart set on once again becoming PM; he seems to also think that this would be much easier if he could again get Wahsington to appoint him to the post (elections being unreliable).

Allawi’s moves come on the heels of rather sever criticism of the current Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Some have even forthrightly called for al-Maliki’s removal—most recently, Hillary and French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner have gotten in on the act.. Bush might have called al-Maliki "a good guy” but it seems more and more likely that Washington might want to simply blame him for all the problems and then enact a purge. Sensing the mood, in his Post op-ed, Allawi explicitly states that parliamentary malfunction is all al-Maliki’s fault.

Al-Maliki hasn’t much helped his cause; however, one should be reminded of the rather bad history of Washington’s picking and choosing the leaders of dependent nations. Since Bush is so fond of Vietnam analogies, let’s go there!

In 1945—before Washington was on Cold War footing with Moscow—the OSS supported Ho Chi Minh’s Communist coup d’état in Indochina. A decade later, after French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Eisenhower backed the pro-Western Ngo Dien Diem—a prime minister lacking in democratic legitimacy. Only 10 years later, as Kennedy sent thousands of soldiers into the region, he grew tired of Diem and authorized a plot which eventuated in Diem’s being abducted from Catholic Mass and shot. The story of America’s involvement in Vietnam gets much worse from there…

Allawi remains a tempting option: an avowed nationalist, he promises to rise above sectarian squabbling. But there’s no S.O.B. on earth who could redeem Washington’s strategic failures. Serial king-making often accompanies quagmires.