Is it me or is the beginning of the end of the Bush-Cheney nightmare beginning to focus minds across the spectrum on more pragmatic, realistic and less partisan approaches? I hope so. A McCain-Obama race could help us a lot. Here's a round-up of various views of what the current flare-up may portend or require:
It's difficult to see how this ends well. This is some of the nastiest intra-sectarian fighting we've seen in Iraq. Second, it looks pretty clear that Maliki is using the Iraqi security forces to consolidate his own power and eliminate his rivals. Third, I can only imagine the trepidation being felt by Sunni leaders who are watching this and wondering whether they're next on Maliki's hit list. For now, the heavy fighting remains limited to Basra, although skirmishes have erupted throughout the country. If this clash in Basra lasts longer than a week, that's going to be really bad for the Maliki government. If the heavy fighting spreads, that's going to be even worse.
The fact of the matter is that this armed struggle for power is, in part, a result of the bizarre nature of Iraqi elections, which do more to promote political parties, rather than individual candidates, which makes the dominance of one party over another nationwide a priority, as opposed to a system where candidates from parties compete head to head.
While similar systems to work in more stable parliamentary systems, it’s a less satisfactory solution in Iraq, where “political party” is pretty much a synonym for “armed militia”, and “winning elections” comprises “killing people who vote for the other party.”
Withdrawing without any political strategy, as the British did from Basra, leads to a vacuum like the one we're seeing now. Sadr rushes in. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq rushes in. The Fadhila party maneuvers between the two. Forces ostensibly loyal to the government, pinioned between all sides, find ways to accommodate the existing power on the streets. In other words: chaos. So to avoid chaos -- and I recognize this is banal and generic -- you can't just pull up stakes.
Some sort of political accommodation has to occur alongside a strategy of extrication. There will be some good suggestions coming out of various think tanks and government offices over the next several months that put flesh to bone here. But the broader point is this: if we decide we're just going to order the post-surge forces out of Iraq in X number of months/years, and nothing accompanies that decision on the political-diplomatic end, then yeah, Basra probably will be a prologue. But if we spend the time between now and then -- say, a new Democratic president's Inaugural -- working on some Undefined Diplomatic Strategy, then we have our best shot -- and it's not a sure shot; I'll be the first to admit -- at extracting ourselves with a minimum of chaos.
(Photo: Iraqi supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr carry his picture on March 27, 2008 during a protest in the Sadr city Shiite district in Baghdad, Iraq. Thousands of Sadr's supporters demonstrated in the Sadr city against a crackdown on militiamen loyal to Sadr in Basra and Baghdad by Iraqi government forces. By Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images.)