NDN Blog

Mr Bush, a few things you may want to read today

Before his meeting on the Middle East in Crawford today, I hope the President gets a chance to read two pieces from the NYTimes this morning (I know this violates the no newspaper rule in Bushworld) that further document the political nature of the challenges we face in the Middle East today, and the limits of what our military can do:

BAGHDAD, Dec. 27 — The car parked outside was almost certainly a tool of the Sunni insurgency. It was pocked with bullet holes and bore fake license plates. The trunk had cases of unused sniper bullets and a notice to a Shiite family telling them to abandon their home.

“Otherwise, your rotten heads will be cut off,” the note read.

The soldiers who came upon the car in a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad were part of a joint American and Iraqi patrol, and the Americans were ready to take action. The Iraqi commander, however, taking orders by cellphone from the office of a top Sunni politician, said to back off: the car’s owner was known and protected at a high level.

For Maj. William Voorhies, the American commander of the military training unit at the scene, the moment encapsulated his increasingly frustrating task — trying to build up Iraqi security forces who themselves are being used as proxies in a spreading sectarian war. This time, it was a Sunni politician — Vice Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie — but the more powerful Shiites interfered even more often.

“I have come to the conclusion that this is no longer America’s war in Iraq, but the Iraqi civil war where America is fighting,” Major Voorhies said.

A second story describes the approach Iran has taken to increase its influence in the region, an approach very different from the one America has taken:

DAMASCUS, Syria — Early next year, Syria’s first domestically manufactured cars are scheduled to roll off an assembly line. They will have an Iranian name, be produced in a plant partly financed by a state-controlled Iranian car company and be made of parts from Iran.

Not long after that, Syria hopes to open two new multimillion-dollar wheat silos, add 1,200 new buses in Damascus, open another Iranian car factory in the north and start operating a cement plant — all in partnership with Iran. The two countries are also talking about building an oil refinery, opening a joint bank, constructing housing, developing electric generators and, someday, linking their rail systems through Iraq.

As the White House begins to rethink its strategy for dealing with the Middle East, particularly how to calm the chaos in Iraq, pressure to try to re-engage Syria has grown. Some Western analysts contend that Syria, with a government more pragmatic than ideological, can be pried away from Iran’s influence and convinced that its long-term interests lie instead with the West.

But Washington has spent years trying to isolate Syria, while Iran has for decades moved to entwine itself with Syria on many levels — political, military, economic and religious.

Iran is a country of many power centers with different pools of money, from funds controlled by grand ayatollahs of Qum, to those in the hands of the Revolutionary Guards. They may not all be directed by the central government, but they all help promote Iranian influence in Syria.

As a result, some Western diplomats in Iran say that, even if the United States tried, it might be impossible to extricate Syria from Iran’s orbit.

“Iranians have been working harder for longer than we realized,” said a European diplomat based in Damascus who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing Syrian officials. “They have stronger links going back more years than we were aware of.”

Syrian officials are extremely sensitive about the relationship with Iran. Part of the reason is fear of igniting sectarian tensions in Syria, which is about 80 percent Sunni Muslim. The president and his inner circle are from a minority Shiite sect, the Alawites, and Iran is Shiite.

While the Syrian power brokers have decided for practical reasons to align with Iran, political analysts in Syria say the government remains fearful of alienating the Sunni majority, especially amid widespread rumors that Iran is trying to convert Sunni Syrians to Shiism.

Concern among Sunnis is heightened because Syria is a major destination for Iranian religious tourists; as many as 500,000 a year visit Shiite sites in Syria. Iranian organizations have spent millions of dollars restoring, enlarging and maintaining Shiite shrines in Syria, from the center of Damascus, the capital, to the north, near the Turkish border.

Iran’s efforts to spread its influence around the Middle East have increased in the last two or three years, regional analysts say. They have been propelled by rising oil prices and American policies in the region, which have neutralized Iran’s enemies, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“Iran has used this affluence of oil revenues over the last five or six years to play a beautiful game, from their perspective,” said Osama T. Elansari, a director of the Dubai International Financial Exchange who lives in Syria.

Iran’s efforts have often been most evident in Lebanon, where it has set up an informal economy in the south. It needs only to provide money to its proxy, Hezbollah, which has a construction arm, called Jihad al Bina, and a vast network of social services that dole out money and build schools and hospitals.

According to some estimates, Iran has spent tens of millions a month over the years in Lebanon. Riad Salameh, the governor of Lebanon’s central bank, said he had no idea how much money Iran had sent into Lebanon because it had gone via Syria, not through the central bank.

This story follows a very similar story yesterday about the growing influence of Iran in Afghanistan.  Kudos to the Times from their strong reporting on the Middle East in recent months. 

Biden steps up

After so many years of mismanagement, our country needs to have a big conversation about our long-term strategy to bring democracy and prosperity to the Middle East.  The incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden apparently is going to do his best to use the Senate to lead this conversation.  Find stories about his plans, which begin with hearings the week of January 9th, in the Times and Post today.  The Times piece has an interesting insight into how the Administration has yet to fully grasp what losing their allies in Congress means for their management of our foreign policy:

Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Tuesday rejected a troop increase for Iraq, foreshadowing what could be a contentious fight between the Bush administration and Congress.

Mr. Biden, a Democrat, announced that he would begin hearings on Iraq on Jan. 9 and expected high-ranking officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to appear.

As President Bush flew to his Texas ranch on Tuesday, a spokesman for the National Security Council urged the senator to wait for Mr. Bush to present his new Iraq policy next month before passing judgment.

“President Bush will talk soon to our troops, the American people and Iraqis about a new way forward for Iraq that will lead to a democratic, unified country that can govern, defend and sustain itself,” said Gordon Johndroe, the council spokesman.

The Times also has a story about the growing Iranian influence in Afghanistan, another good read for those trying to get a better understanding of the region's complex politics. 

Our blog to be observing holiday hours

Our blog will be observing holiday hours this week, and back in full force on the 2nd.   Happy Holidays all.

Dorgan and Sherrod Brown on Globalization

Senators Brown and Dorgan have a thoughtful op-ed in the Post today about the challenge globalization poses to America.  There is little question that how America once again offers a strategy to ensure that capital, corporations and people succeed in the global economy of the 21st century is one of the greatest governing challenges we face today. 

NDN has been offering a great deal of thinking about all this over the past 18 months, available at www.ndn.org/globalization.  

More on the Sunni-Shiite struggle in Iraq

The Times has another story today that shows how important the underlying Sunni-Shiite struggle is to understanding what is happening in Iraq today:

As the United States debates what to do in Iraq, this country’s Shiite majority has been moving toward its own solution: making the capital its own.

Large portions of Baghdad have become Shiite in recent months, as militias press their fight against Sunni militants deeper into the heart of the capital, displacing thousands of Sunni residents. At least 10 neighborhoods that a year ago were mixed Sunni and Shiite are now almost entirely Shiite, according to residents, American and Iraqi military commanders and local officials.

For the first years of the war, Sunni militants were dominant, forcing Shiites out of neighborhoods and systematically killing bakers, barbers and trash collectors, who were often Shiites. But starting in February, after the bombing of a shrine in the city of Samarra, Shiite militias began to strike back, pushing west from their strongholds and redrawing the sectarian map of the capital, home to a quarter of Iraq’s population.

The Shiite-dominated government publicly condemns violence against Sunnis and says it is trying to stop the militias that carry it out. But the attacks have continued unabated, and Sunnis have grown suspicious.

Plans for a new bridge that would bypass a violent Sunni area in the east, and a proposal for land handouts in towns around Baghdad that would bring Shiites into what are now Sunni strongholds underscored these concerns.

Sunni political control in Baghdad is all but nonexistent: Of the 51 members of the Baghdad Provincial Council, which runs the city’s services, just one is Sunni.

In many ways, the changes are a natural development. Shiites, a majority of Iraq’s population, were locked out of the ruling elite under Saddam Hussein and now have power that matches their numbers.

The danger, voiced by Sunni Arabs, is that an emboldened militant fringe will conduct broader killings without being stopped by the government, or, some fear, with its help. That could, in turn, draw Sunni countries into the fight and lead to a protracted regional war, precisely the outcome that Americans most fear.

More prayer than policy

Intellectually exhausted, politically defeated and personally repudiated, President Bush and his Administraton are desperately trying to figure out what to do in Iraq.  As time goes on it is growing more likely that what they will settle on will be more prayer than policy.  They are going to put a series of things in motion that may work, but will not have a high or even probable likelihood of success, and then essentially just wish for the best.  They simply are no longer in control of what is happening in Iraq and the region, and have made it clear in recent weeks that they don't have the imagination, the humility and the strength to find not just a new path forward but a better one (see my most recent post for more).  

The Times today calls them rudderless.  The Post has yet another story about the intense military opposition to the "surge." A must-read Times op-ed today reflects on the Sunni-Shiite struggle, one that once again reminds us how unlikely it is that whatever the Administration does now will resolve the political and religious struggles that are driving the current worsening of conditions in Iraq. 

It is my sincere belief that once the Administration rejected the ISG recommendation of an intense regional diplomatic initiative they dramatically reduced the possibilty of a "victory" in Iraq and progress in a fraying Middle East.

Joint Chiefs: Bush no longer knows what to do

The Post has an explosive story out this am, one that blows to pieces the rationale behind the Bush/McCain "surge" strategy, and one that confirms that the Administration no longer has any idea about what to do about the mess they've made in the Middle East and Iraq (see my recent post No Way Out for more): 

The Bush administration is split over the idea of a surge in troops to Iraq, with White House officials aggressively promoting the concept over the unanimous disagreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intense debate.

Sending 15,000 to 30,000 more troops for a mission of possibly six to eight months is one of the central proposals on the table of the White House policy review to reverse the steady deterioration in Iraq. The option is being discussed as an element in a range of bigger packages, the officials said.

But the Joint Chiefs think the White House, after a month of talks, still does not have a defined mission and is latching on to the surge idea in part because of limited alternatives, despite warnings about the potential disadvantages for the military, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House review is not public.

The chiefs have taken a firm stand, the sources say, because they believe the strategy review will be the most important decision on Iraq to be made since the March 2003 invasion.

At regular interagency meetings and in briefing President Bush last week, the Pentagon has warned that any short-term mission may only set up the United States for bigger problems when it ends. The service chiefs have warned that a short-term mission could give an enormous edge to virtually all the armed factions in Iraq -- including al-Qaeda's foreign fighters, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias -- without giving an enduring boost to the U.S military mission or to the Iraqi army, the officials said.

The Pentagon has cautioned that a modest surge could lead to more attacks by al-Qaeda, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents and fuel the jihadist appeal for more foreign fighters to flock to Iraq to attack U.S. troops, the officials said.

The informal but well-armed Shiite militias, the Joint Chiefs have also warned, may simply melt back into society during a U.S. surge and wait until the troops are withdrawn -- then reemerge and retake the streets of Baghdad and other cities.

Even the announcement of a time frame and mission -- such as for six months to try to secure volatile Baghdad -- could play to armed factions by allowing them to game out the new U.S. strategy, the chiefs have warned the White House.

The idea of a much larger military deployment for a longer mission is virtually off the table, at least so far, mainly for logistics reasons, say officials familiar with the debate. Any deployment of 40,000 to 50,000 would force the Pentagon to redeploy troops who were scheduled to go home.

When the President makes his grand announcement about a "new way forward" in Iraq early next year, it is going to be critical that we judge him not on whether it is a new strategy, but whether it is a better one, one that can plausibly achieve its objectives.  For example, what exactly are the troops going to do in Iraq when they get there? And if this is still a war, as the President describes, who is the enemy and how we will our troops engage and defeat them? Is the enemy the Iranian-backed Shiite militias? The Saudi-backed Sunni insurgents? Al Qaeda itself, a small but growing presence in the West?  Maliki's government, partners with the Shiite militias? The Saudis, who say they will intervene militarily if the Sunni Arabs continue to be targeted by Shiite militias? And if the troops are going in as peacekeepers and not warriors, shouldn't we say that, and admit this is a failed occupation and not a war? 

As has been said by many, there is no longer a military solution to our troubles in the Middle East.  By rejecting the core recommendation of the ISG Report, an enhanced diplomatic track intent on making progress on the political and economic problems of the region, the Administration almost certainly guarenteed that whatever path they followed would be new but not better.

New Iraq study shows dramatic rise in violence

From the Post tonight:  

Violence in Iraq rose across the board this fall to the highest levels on record, fueled by the growth of Shiite militia that have replaced al-Qaeda as the most dangerous force propelling the nation toward civil war, according to a new Pentagon report released this afternoon.

Attack levels reached record highs in all categories as the number of coalition casualties surged 32 percent and the number of weekly attacks rose 22 percent nationwide from mid-August to mid-November, compared with the previous three months, according to the congressionally mandated Pentagon report.

The report documents that U.S. and Iraqi operations to quell violence in Baghdad ultimately failed, with attacks dipping in August before rebounding in September as death squads adapted to the increased presence of U.S. and Iraqi troops.

Meanwhile, Iraqi public fears of civil war grew, while confidence in the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dropped significantly as Maliki's efforts at political reconciliation have shown "little progress," the report said.

Titled "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq," the 50-page report is issued quarterly and compiled by the Pentagon at the behest of Congress.

It found that Iraqi civilian casualties rose 60 percent following the rise of the Maliki government in May.

So when folks like McCain propose a surge of American troops in Iraq, something rejected by the Joint Chiefs and Colin Powell, he is really talking about going after the Shiite militias, now an integral part of the Maliki government? I still can't really understand what the goal of the surge is. 

Update: The Times has a story this am about the failing electrical system in Baghdad:

BAGHDAD, Dec. 18 — Over the past six months, Baghdad has been all but isolated electrically, Iraqi officials say, as insurgents have effectively won their battle to bring down critical high-voltage lines and cut off the capital from the major power plants to the north, south and west.

The battle has been waged in the remotest parts of the open desert, where the great towers that support thousands of miles of exposed lines are frequently felled with explosive charges in increasingly determined and sophisticated attacks, generally at night. Crews that arrive to repair the damage are often attacked and sometimes killed, ensuring that the government falls further and further behind as it attempts to repair the lines.

And in a measure of the deep disunity and dysfunction of this nation, when the repair crews and security forces are slow to respond, skilled looters often arrive with heavy trucks that pull down more of the towers to steal as much of the valuable aluminum conducting material in the lines as possible. The aluminum is melted into ingots and sold.

What amounts to an electrical siege of Baghdad is reflected in constant power failures and disastrously poor service in the capital, with severe consequences for security, governance, health care and the mood of an already weary and angry populace.

More evidence elections a setback for Ahmadinejad

The Times has another story tonight on how the initial returns In Iran appear to be a setback for Ahmadinejad.

White House attempts to censor debate about Iran

Follow this developing story at its source, the Washington Note, the blog of my good friend Steve Clemons.

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