In the Arena

No, Not November. Not Even September. Now.

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Well, of course they want to delay the reports till November. And Ryan Crocker is right–the Maliki government’s movement toward passing the benchmarks isn’t a true test…because the Maliki government isn’t a true government, which is something the U.S. won’t admit. As I’ve been writing here, the reality is that the capital city is, increasingly, in the control of Muqtada Sadr’s political and military forces. That is a political reality we (and many of the Iraqis) seem unwilling to admit.

And while there have been positive military developments–the new alliance with the Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda in Iraq–those positive developments are likely to lead to negative military developments in the future as Sunni police, recruited from the tribes, square off against the mostly Shi’ite Iraqi Army.

No, there is only one outside influence that may–repeat, may–cause the Iraqis to get their act together: the beginning of a phased withdrawal, without timelines or deadlines. We should pull a brigade out of Anbar right now, to signal our intentions. The next step is to announce that we are beginning a phased withdrawal from Baghdad, starting on the east (shi’ite) side of town and instructing the local State Department Provincial Reconstruction Teams operating in those neighborhoods to begin cooperating with the neighborhood Sadrist infrastructure, which has been providing most of the social services. In other words, we should be starting a bottom-up effort to show the Shi’ite powers that be (the Sadrists) that our new realism doesn’t just extend to Sunni tribes, but also to the Shi’ite majority.

And all this should begin now. This nonsensical waiting for Maliki, and for the Petraeus report, is counterproductive to the long-term U.S. goal: leaving Iraq in the least damaging fashion.

Which is not to say that the Congressional Democrats can or should continue their futile efforts to force this outcome. I’d guess that their efforts only make Bush more stubborn and less likely to listen to those in his administration–i.e. everyone but Cheney–who are looking for an exit strategy.

I’d say the immediate responsibility for moving in the right direction belongs, squarely, with Petraeus and Crocker…before the (very strong) possibility of a spectacularly bloody late August makes it impossible to think clearly or respond rationally.

Update: I disagree with commenter Terrapin and those others who say:

I cannot believe that if the Dems cease putting pressure on Bush that he will moderate his position and suddenly do the right thing.

I believe the following:

1. The chances of changing Bush’s Iraq policy are minimal, to nonexistant, under any circumstances.

2. The Congressional Democratic strategy only makes Bush more stubborn.

3. If there is any chance for a change in policy, it resides with the uniformed military in the Pentagon–who want to save their all-volunteer Army–plus the voices of realpolitik in the Administration, possibly Secs. Gates and Rice…Plus Petraeus who has become Bush’s Voodoo Icon and has a big, big choice to make about his own legacy.

4. As always, my reporting–including yesterday’s assertion that 30% of the Mahdi Army are former Ba’athists–is based on extensive conversations with military, intelligence and diplomatic sources, some who support and others who oppose the current policy, but can not be identified lest they lose their current jobs.