Tuesday, November 20, 2007

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Meanwhile, in Iraq....

The New York Times' Damien Cave and Alissa Rubin have the story that will occupy the blogosphere for today -- Baghdad is safer:

The security improvements in most neighborhoods are real. Days now pass without a car bomb, after a high of 44 in the city in February. The number of bodies appearing on Baghdad’s streets has plummeted to about 5 a day, from as many as 35 eight months ago, and suicide bombings across Iraq fell to 16 in October, half the number of last summer and down sharply from a recent peak of 59 in March, the American military says.

As a result, for the first time in nearly two years, people are moving with freedom around much of this city. In more than 50 interviews across Baghdad, it became clear that while there were still no-go zones, more Iraqis now drive between Sunni and Shiite areas for work, shopping or school, a few even after dark. In the most stable neighborhoods of Baghdad, some secular women are also dressing as they wish. Wedding bands are playing in public again, and at a handful of once shuttered liquor stores customers now line up outside in a collective rebuke to religious vigilantes from the Shiite Mahdi Army.

Iraqis are clearly surprised and relieved to see commerce and movement finally increase, five months after an extra 30,000 American troops arrived in the country. But the depth and sustainability of the changes remain open to question.

By one revealing measure of security — whether people who fled their home have returned — the gains are still limited. About 20,000 Iraqis have gone back to their Baghdad homes, a fraction of the more than 4 million who fled nationwide, and the 1.4 million people in Baghdad who are still internally displaced, according to a recent Iraqi Red Crescent Society survey.

This report, combined with reports on monthly deaths from sectarian violence, suggest that the effects of the surge are clear -- we've managed to get Baghdad back to the place it was prior to the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. I believe this is also a period in which even members of the Bush administration admitted that their Iraq policy was "adrift."

Well, there are some other changes... ike in the rest of Iraq. The Christian Science Monitor's Sam Dagher has a story on this:

Ammar al-Hakim is presiding over an Iraqi Shiite building boom. His austere Shaheed al-Mihrab Foundation has raised 400 mosques in Iraq since 2003. It's building the largest seminary here in the holy city of Najaf and opening a chain of schools. And it now has 95 offices throughout the country.

What's more, Mr. Hakim's foundation is winning over adherents to his party – the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) – through all-expenses-paid mass marriages along with cash payments and gifts for the newlyweds, free education and stipends at his new schools, and an array of other charitable projects such as caring for orphans and displaced families.

All of this is being done to promote ISCI's core vision: a federation of nine provinces where conservative Shiite Islam would reign.

While opponents say that such a federation among central and southern provinces would only hasten the breakup of Iraq and create a ministate where Iran would hold great sway, Hakim and his party are making great gains.

For them, the plan would bolster security for Shiites and benefit the stability of the country as a whole. And, most significant, they are winning much support ahead of a national referendum on the issue by April 2008, as proscribed by the Constitution.

Is this a good thing? The International Crisis Group is skeptical:
As long as the U.S. remains in Iraq, its alliance with ISCI will help entrench the party in the country’s governing, security and intelligence institutions, in Baghdad as well as most southern governorates. Its only true challenger remains the Mahdi army, which despite its ruffian credentials and bloody role in sectarian reprisals enjoys broad support among Shiite masses. Their rivalry now takes the form of a class struggle between the Shiite merchant elite of Baghdad and the holy cities, represented by ISCI (as well, religiously, by Sistani), and the Shiite urban underclass.

This struggle, more than the sectarian conflict or confrontation between Anbari sheikhs and al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters, is likely to shape the country’s future. The most plausible scenario is a protracted struggle for power between these two movements, marked perhaps by temporary alliances, such as is presently in force.

The U.S. has fully backed ISCI in this rivalry. This is a risky gambit. Unleashing ISCI/Badr against the Sadrists is a dangerous policy that will further deepen intra-Shiite divisions; it also is a short-sighted one, given the Sadrists’ stronger mass base.

Question to readers: is there cause to be optimistic about the future of Iraq?

UPDATE: Anne Applebaum makes an important point:

[The] optimism is totally unwarranted. Not because things aren't improving in Iraq—it seems they are, at least for the moment—but because the collateral damage inflicted by the war on America's relationships with the rest of the world is a lot deeper and broader than most Americans have yet realized. It isn't just that the Iraq war invigorated the anti-Americanism that has always been latent pretty much everywhere. Far worse is the fact that—however it all comes out in the end, however successful Iraqi democracy becomes a decade from now—our conduct of the war in Iraq has disillusioned our natural friends and supporters and thrown a lasting shadow over our military and political competence. However it all comes out, the price we've paid is too high.

posted by Dan on 11.20.07 at 08:49 AM


Maybe there is just a (temporary?) shortage in supply of suicide bombers... I recently heard about a kid as a suicide bomber.

posted by: R on 11.20.07 at 08:49 AM [permalink]


Quibble -- Anne Applebaum is answering a broader question -- "Will things come out all right [for the USA] in the end?". I think her answer to the more important question is about right.

As for how things work out in Iraq? I figure I know as much as George W. Bush about that one. Which means I'm keeing my mouth shut.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 11.20.07 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

Applebaum makes a valid point, but she isnt raising an argument she is assuming a conclusion.

IF Iraq were to end up reasonably well, you'd see those same miffed parties doing the backpeddling. Reagan went through the same thing and he ended up being right. Will this Bush? He has to succeed to find out, and we're still a long way from that.

We're way too close to Iraq to judge the long term affects- particularly without knowing the ending! Thats a rather important detail, no? If Europe retains its problems with domestic Islamicists, but Iraq becomes a success and influences moderation in the Middle East- we may end up looking like prophets on this thing.

Of course if the violence explodes once the surge is rolled back its a moot point. The US will be out in short order and its pretty obvious the enterprise was a blunder of huge proportions.

I think its a little early and a little disingenous to start setting the table for why a successfull Iraq is still a net failure. It COULD be but that is counterintuitive.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 11.20.07 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

So the argument is that any outcome is bad b/c the US has damaged its image in the world. But what if, improbably I would agree, but she posited the scenario, things turn out well? Then who loses face? The naysayers, the critics, indeed, many of the anti-Americans. I say the outcome matters A LOT. I was against the war, and have been pessimistic on the outcome. But I am all for a positive outcome. Most b/c of its strategic consequences in the region, and some of these consequences are due to helping America's image (and perhaps more importantly less risk of regional instability, etc. Which if the area blows up, will hurt our image, if that is the key factor Appelbaum believes it to be).

Is the AA argument really that anti Americanism is so bad, and other strategic consequences of success so trivial, that success means little or nothing?

Or is DD throwing out bait/meat, such an illogical but inflammatory argument by AA?

posted by: Dan on 11.20.07 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

"Far worse is the fact that—however it all comes out in the end, however successful Iraqi democracy becomes a decade from now—our conduct of the war in Iraq has disillusioned our natural friends and supporters and thrown a lasting shadow over our military and political competence. "

This kind of makes me wonder what kind of illusions our natural friends and supporters harboured about our military and political competence. After Kennedy's cack-handed bungling in Cuba, Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon's bungling in Vietnam, Carter's mismanagement of the revolution in Iran and the hostage crisis (and possible involvement in the Kwangju massacre), the various sordid little wars of Reagan's administration (Nicaragua, Grenada), Clinton's misadventures in Somalia (with the UN) and the Balkans (without), and his attempt to restore democracy to Haiti (so successful the US and France had to go in again recently to force Aristide out, just like the we did with Cedras) . . . what illusions could they possibly have? Were they just not paying attention for the past 40 years?

Pretty much the only American military/political intervention I can think of that actually came off smoothly was Gulf War I. Everything else has been the usual muddling through -- blowing up embassies, accidental massacres, precipitous retreats, etc. We came out all right from all that -- a bit bruised but with fundamentals still strong -- and I honestly don't see the qualitative difference this time around.

posted by: Taeyoung on 11.20.07 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

"Everything else has been the usual muddling through -- blowing up embassies, accidental massacres, precipitous retreats, etc. We came out all right from all that -- a bit bruised but with fundamentals still strong -- and I honestly don't see the qualitative difference this time around."

One word: Oil.

We are now playing around in the part of the world that provides us with the energy crack we need to keep our civilization churning at a discount that we have enjoyed for decades.

A bad Iraq, a jumpy Iran, an unstable Saudi Arabia can affect us in the pocketbook much, much, much more than any of the conflicts you stated... except Vietnam... maybe.

posted by: yagij on 11.20.07 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

As mentioned above, the Applebaum quote isn't an argument so it's difficult to judge without knowing her premises. Certainly, European governments are more friendly to us than they have been in some time. China and Russia were likely never going to be that friendly, and much of the Arab world rejoiced on 9/11.

There seems to be a utopian view on the left regarding both the US's past military success (invariably after a period of defeat and adaptation), and the view of the US in the world pre-Iraq. Many seem to forget that Clinton was regularly greeted by rioting protestors when visiting Europe.

posted by: Rob on 11.20.07 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

Oh please, Applebaum's being intellectually lazy. The Germans were running 'curveball' and it was the Germans who wouldn't let the CIA talk with him. German intell also thought that Iraq was about 3 - 4 months away from going nuclear. Anybody else remember that?
The European 'friends' spend their defense money maintaining equipment suited for the Cold War, and as this equipment gets older they'll be spending even more money on it. European armies might look large on paper, but it is only on paper.
And yes, the Army and Marines have turned the situation around in Iraq - although I can sense that disappoints you lot.

posted by: Jean on 11.20.07 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

My sentiments are pretty much along the lines of those expressed by Taeyoung and Rob, above. I am deeply dubious of the view that our actions *changed* any feelings, as opposed to simply *unmasking* them. We now know pretty much where our "allies" stand, and how much the sentiment "we are all Americans" is worth.

Rather than yet another self-excoriating article from an American about what awful lessons our allies are surely learning from this, I'd like to see the other side: A worried article or two from foreign writers about the lessons they presume Americans are drawing from the rest of the world.

If (yes, big if) Iraq actually works out, will any of them be saying "The United States begged for our help in bringing down a corrupt and murderous dictator. We told them to bugger off. In retrospect, was that the right -- or prudent -- thing to do?"

- Alaska Jack

posted by: Alaska Jack on 11.20.07 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

There are a lot of harmful ideas that Iraq has destroyed. After Somalia and Lebanon, there were a lot of experts who thought America would always flee at the first sign of casualties. Everyone knew that the "three year rule" meant that you just had to hang on for three years + however long it took to get to the next election and you'd win any war with the US.

More to the point, the average villager knew that the terrorists knew that, which meant that they knew that the terrorists were likely to win, which meant that they'd be insane to throw in their lot with the Americans. Any future would be insurrectionist leader will have to persuade locals to opt in to a decade long struggle, which may be a harder case to make.

It's also worth noting that India is perhaps as big a gain for US international support as Europe's new pro-Americans. It's amazing to see how mature India has been in responding to the constant terrorist attacks over the past few years, for instance.

There's also, of course, been a massive proliferation of FTAs and other formalised channels of cooperation across Latin America, the Middle East, and the Pacific Rim.

posted by: James of England on 11.20.07 at 08:49 AM [permalink]

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