Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Abandoning American soldiers in Iraq -- continued

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki ordered American troops to back off of Sadr City, the Shiite community in and around Baghdad. In addition to trying to stabilize the area where violence is spiraling out of control, the U.S. soldiers were seeking one of their own who had been kidnapped and suspected of being held in the Shiite neighborhood. Mr. Maliki has been seen by some as caving in to Moktada al-Sadr.

According to the New York Times,
Moktada al-Sadr, the powerful Shiite cleric who counts Sadr City as his greatest bastion of support and who wields considerable influence in Mr. Maliki’s ruling Shiite coalition, called for a general strike in the neighborhood on Tuesday to rotest the cordon. In its search for the soldier, the American military has singled out the Mahdi Army militia, which has grown increasingly fractured but still answers in part to Mr. Sadr.
As noted earlier below, Andrew Sullivan sees this U.S. acquiesces as abandoning an American soldier at a time the administration does not want to rock the boat due to upcoming midterm elections next week and he lays the responsibility for this directly on the doorstep of the White House.

Kevin Drum, no friend to Republicans in general and this White House in particular, takes a somewhat different and more nuanced view. He sees American withdrawals from the checkpoints around the Shiite area at Maliki’s request as probably a good thing. He writes,
….bowing to pressure from Maliki probably was the right thing to do, for at least a couple of reasons. First, it's impossible for Maliki to control the political situation in Iraq, as we want him to do, unless the various Iraqi factions believe he has genuine influence over the U.S. military. If we had swatted him down in a high-profile case like this, it would have been tantamount to a death sentence.

Second, Maliki might very well have saved us from ourselves. After all, our cordon had already been in place for eight days without result, and there was no indication that it ever would have worked. (Hezbollah endured a thousand deaths and two months of destruction in Lebanon and still wouldn't release the abducted Israeli soldiers that started that war.) My guess is that the militants who held the U.S. soldier would never have released him, and that they even viewed the growing chaos in Sadr City as a positive benefit. Keeps the locals riled up against the American occupation, you know.

So Maliki probably did us a favor by giving us an excuse to back down yesterday. In a broader sense, though, the story of the Sadr City cordon is the story of Iraq in a microcosm: tactics unsuited to the fight, no exit strategy when those tactics turn out not to work, and eventually a clear demonstration of the limits of American power. The military set up the cordon because they didn't want to simply do nothing, but then had to stick with it forever because anything less would show a "lack of resolve." In a way, Maliki rescued us from our own folly on Tuesday.
I’m not convinced he necessarily did us a favor. I do appreciate it is important that Maliki show independence of the Americans to survive politically and to also exercise authority vested in him as the elected leader of his country. However, part of the government’s survival is also due to American troops trying (and dying) to keep a lid on this low level civil war that is coming closer and closer to raging out of control. Power is always a two way street and Mr. Maliki giving in to al-Sadr by calling off the Americans should have turned to Mr. al-Sadr and told him he now needs to find that American soldier and returned him safely to American custody immediately.

I also recognize the reality of war is awful. Soldiers die. Soldiers disappear. And, yes, soldiers are abandoned for political and military reasons. However, maintaining the fiction that no soldier is ever left behind is important for morale and esprit de corps among the troops.

The tensions here between the U.S. and Iraq only reinforces my conclusion of the wisdom of Fareed Zalaria’s recommendation below that Iraq's Parliament should thus publicly ask American troops to stay. Either they need us and we establish a working relationship or they don’t need us and we leave. It’s their call and they need to do it in the open and not say one thing in public and something different in private.

Drum wonders whether the Democrats will pick up on this issue. Given the administration’s attempt to turn the public attention away from the war in Iraq to perceived insults inflicted upon the troops on the front by Senator Kerry, I would be surprised if the Democrats did not turn and point out while the White House was feigning outrage over a bad joke mentioning soldiers, they abandoned one to his probable death.. Despite the complexities of the issue, it seems just too good a subject to let pass by.

It is worth following the link to Drum’s piece. Of course you can read it in its entirety but of interest are the comments that follow. There are too many for me to count at this late hour but the writers are split between those agreeing that this was probably the right thing to do and those sincerely outraged. Keep in mind most or all of these writers are generally just liberals of one degree or another. The point being the split in opinion is not just along ideological lines.

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