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Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Changing Political Dynamics in Iraq and their Domestic Political Implications

The month of May of 2008 may one day be recognized in the history books of Iraq as the month when the central government really turned a corner. In that month, Nuri Al Maliki called a haphazard military operation in Basra and took on JAM there. The operation started out clumsily and the coalition forces weren't even initially made aware of the operation. Still, the Iraqi forces hung tough and eventually they wound overpowering JAM not only in Basra but in the streets of Sadr City, JAM's main launching ground. Maliki wasn't through. Nearly without a break, he then sent his troops into Mosul to take on the remnants of AQI. Maliki was so forceful in confronting the terrorists, of all sects, that he even made an appearance in Mosul himself to inspect the situation. With that the government showed real willingness not only to take on the terrorists, but more importantly even, to lead.

Here is how liberal commentator Joe Klein described Maliki's new leadership posture.

At a recent cabinet meeting after the Sadr City operation, the entire room stood when Maliki entered, a sign of newfound respect for a leader who was regarded as little more than a place-holder only months ago.

Just recently, with regards to the so called benchmarks, the White House delivered more good news.

Well, if the benchmarks were all-important to Democrats in the fall of 2007, they have become meaningless to them in 2008. When is the last time you’ve heard a benchmark reckoning from Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi? The reason for the deafening silence on this matter is simple. The military and political progress in Iraq has proved so monumental that the majority of the benchmarks have now been met.

Seven of the 18 benchmarks relate to Iraq’s national security. We can just about put a check next to each one. We can even look at some of those and marvel at the low expectations behind them. Number 9, for example: “Providing three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations.” There are far more than three battle-ready brigades in Baghdad. The galvanization of Sunni Awakening groups who have wrested their country back from al-Qaeda and the decisive efforts of Iraqi forces in Basra and Sadr City have been the two most vital developments of the entire post-Saddam period.

The other eleven benchmarks are the political ones. And these are not so easily sniffed at. However, with Iraq’s parliament passing three critical laws in February and the Maliki government’s surprising tenacity, the four most challenging of these benchmarks have been met: a plan for provincial governance, de-Baathification reform, an amnesty for former insurgents, and legislation on the procedures to form semiautonomous regions.

Of the remaining benchmarks, some were always too ill-defined to be worthwhile. (Consider 18, for example: “Ensuring that Iraq’s political authorities are not undermining or making false accusations against members of the Iraqi Security Forces.” Can we even say with confidence that America’s political authorities are not making false accusations against our own armed forces?) Others are also subjective, but admittedly important — equality under the law being one. And on these there is continued and demonstrable progress.

According to the White House, 15 of the 18 benchmarks are being satisfactoriy met. Of course, there will be spin from both sides on this issue since of course it is the White House doing the analysis. Not everyone was quite so rosey. The GAO's analysis was significantly more mixed. Still, there is no denying that along with significant military progress we are now seeing tangible political progress.

This is of course vital not only because political progress and reconciliation is crucial in Petraeus' counter insurgency strategy. It is is also important because war detractors have dismissed drops in violence by pointing to perceived lack of political progress. As progress becomes more and more evident, that argument becomes less and less tennable. Furthermore, the fall will bring regional elections in Iraq and further signs of political progress.

Of course, nothing in Iraq is cut and dry, and analyzing political implications are no exceptions. However right the supporters of the surge have been proven and vice versa for detractors that doesn't necessarily mean that this will be rewarded politically.

In fact, the positive political progress in Iraq leads to a terribly confusing domestic implications here at home. The war remains terribly unpopular and most folks still want to see the troops brought home. Some Democrats have even used the enormous progress to call for more rapid withdrawal. (a cynical ploy given that these same folks used the chaos to make the same call) It is unlikely the war will ever be popular with the public at large, and thus the political progress in Iraq may or may not lead to a political opportunity at home.

The Republicans best political advantage is General David Petraeus himself. This is of course a dicey ally. The public is not going to appreciate a General being used as a political pawn, and the General himself will appreciate it even less. The simple fact of the matter is that war detractors are going against the direct wishes of the very General that has lead such a stunning turn around in Iraq. The Republican's position is simple...let the general finish the job. The Democrats' position is much more difficult.

In order for the Republicans to enjoy the benefits of political Iraqi progress they must take the debate to the Democrats. Have them explain how they would change the mission right from under one of the greatest generals of all time. The Democrats main ally is the public's total disgust and exhaustion with the war. Their position matches the public's emotions on the subject.

Of course, as if we didn't have enough political variables, we have this. The Iraqi government is now asking for a timetable for coalition troop withdrawal to be tied to a long term security agreement. Of course, like everything else, this particular bit of news is not cut and dry either. First, I am of the opinion that this is a negotiating tool. There is no way the Iraqi government wants to see the U.S. leave on a timetable. This is very likely a ploy by Maliki to show his domestic political allies and adversaries that he is a strong leader.That is essentially the view that commentator Max Boot takes as well.

How concerned should we be about demands emanating from the Maliki government for a withdrawal timetable for U.S. troops? Unless something changes dramatically, the answer I would give is: not very.

That's not because the situation in Iraq is so stable that we can pull out American forces without doing any damage. Despite recent gains in security, the situation remains fragile and U.S. forces will need to remain in Iraq for years to nurture this embattled democracy--and not so incidentally to protect our own interests in the region. The good news is that Prime Minister Maliki, along with every other major figure in Iraqi politics, understands this. But they also understand that the people of Iraq are impatient for the return of full sovereignty and for the departure of foreign troops from their soil.

With provincial elections coming up in the fall, there is every incentive for Maliki and other Iraqi politicos to show they are not puppets of Uncle Sam. They are driving a hard bargain in the negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement and a Strategic Framework Agreement that will set the future conditions of the U.S. military presence. And they are blustering about the need to withdraw U.S. troops-eventually. But note that, unlike Barack Obama, they are not attaching any timelines to this withdrawal. Certainly they are not calling for U.S. troops to be gone by 2010, a pledge that the Democratic candidate once made and hasn't quite renounced.

Thus, Democrats would be wise to temper their Maliki references for two reasons. First, this is very much likely nothing more than a negotiating ploy. Second, it isn't very wise for them to get to close to the same individual they have spent the last two years criticizing incessantly. So far the only Democrat I have seen invoking Maliki's demand has been Alan Colmes. I don't see his demand for timetables as much of a political winner though, and I doubt the Democrats will use it much.

In conclusion, the situation in Iraq remains fluid and its political ramifications here at home are just as fluid. The situation presents an opportunity for Republicans who backed the winning strategy to take the political fight to the Democrats who backed the wrong strategy. Now, it is up to the Republicans to take advantage. We will wait and see.

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