PRAGUE — Doctors use the word “crisis” to describe the point at which a patient either starts to recover or dies. U.S. President George W. Bush’s Iraqi patient now seems to have reached that point. Most commentators appear to think that Bush’s latest prescription — a surge of 20,000 additional troops to suppress the militias in Baghdad — will, at best, merely postpone the inevitable death of his dream of a democratic Iraq. Yet as “Battle of Baghdad” begins, factors beyond Bush’s control and not of his making (at least not intentionally) may just save Iraq from its doom.
One key factor is that, for the first time since the United States and Britain invaded Iraq, Arab Sunni leaders are backing a U.S. military plan for that country. These Sunni leaders live in abject fear of the geopolitical earthquake that any disintegration of political authority in Baghdad would bring, believing that all-out civil war would invariably follow — a war that would not respect international borders.
Of course, America has been encouraging Sunni leaders in this belief. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent tour of Middle East capitals helped spread the word to Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states that any U.S. failure and sudden withdrawal would be certain to destabilize them.
Given the fragile grip that these leaders have over their societies, America’s warnings have been taken to heart.
But the truly curious factor that might bring success to Bush is that those who have opposed or resented America’s presence in Iraq, such as the Iranian-backed Shiite parties, now also appear to want Bush’s new strategy to succeed. They are for it because they believe it will defang Muqtada Al-Sadr, the rogue Shiite cleric whose power has mushroomed over the past three years — to the point that he now dominates much of Baghdad and holds the allegiance of countless angry young Shiite men.
Of course, attacking Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in the name of fighting militia death squads has the potential to draw American military forces into a level of urban warfare unseen since the Fallujah assaults of 2004 and 2005. Al-Sadr is seen as the protector of the Shiite of Iraq and has an estimated 60,000 fighters in his militia. But he is deeply mistrusted by other Shiite leaders, who fear that they may one day have to take him on by themselves. Better to let the Americans do it, though of course these Shiite leaders prefer a slow strangulation of Al-Sadr to a direct and bloody assault.
Make no mistake: How Al-Sadr is handled is the big test of Bush’s new strategy. Should the U.S. choose to face Al-Sadr and his forces head on, they risk alienating Iraq’s largest sectarian community, the Shiite, adding fuel to the anti-occupation resistance and thus probably dooming Bush to failure.
Iran and Syria, which have played a spoiler role in Iraq up to now, may also now be anxious to find a way to pull the country back from the brink. Bush still refuses to talk to either of them, and has lately been having U.S. troops arrest Iranian agents in Iraq. Yet Iran may already see itself as victorious, with the current Iraqi government friendlier than any the Iranians have ever known. So maintaining that government in office has now become a strategic priority for Iran, particularly as it is now clear that any U.S. hopes of using Iraq as a permanent military base are dead.
The “surge” also opens, perhaps for the first time, a serious possibility of pouring water on the insurgent fires in Anbar province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency. The U.S. has achieved relative successes in the province through alliances with Sunni tribes. The hope is that such realistic and pragmatic accommodations will be extended to Iraqis who are fighting under the banner of a nationalist and anti-occupation agenda.
So some of the stars have come into alignment for Bush. But to keep them there in the long term, the Iraqi government will need to amend the constitution in a way that appeases the Sunni community. Reassuring Iraq’s Sunnis that they have a place in the new Iraq will also reassure neighboring Sunni governments, which have mostly turned a blind eye to the support for the insurgency that has come from their lands.
Of course, should the U.S. see failure ahead, it could seek to broaden the war beyond Iraq’s borders by attacking Iran, a policy reminiscent of “Operation Sideshow,” when U.S. failure in Vietnam in the late 1960s enticed U.S. President Richard Nixon into attacking Cambodia and Laos.
But Iran has resources that Cambodia and Laos could never muster; indeed, its ability to retaliate could set the entire region ablaze. Whereas America’s war in Indochina was a tragic mistake, the cost of a wider war precipitated by the crisis in Iraq would be incomparably greater — for both the patient and the doctor.