Personality Wars

John Burns has an article in today's New York Times basically making it clear how untenable the U.S. position in Iraq has become. Super-hack Andy McCarthy links to the article only to use it as a pretext for grinding axes against other unnamed Times reporters he doesn't like. Jonah Goldberg, by contrast, at least acknowledges that since Burns is for some reason (he seems good to me, too, and it's not obvious to me what his special appeal to conservatives is supposed to be) a rightwing-approved foreign correspondent, his article is especially "despression".

The article itself, of course, doesn't strike me as especially depressing. What's depressing is the situation in Iraq. We've finally reached a point where Bush administration officials see that what's needed is some kind of political reconciliation with Sunni Arab groups, but there's no particular willingness on the part of the Shiite Islamists who run the government to actually do that. Everyone says militias should be disarmed, but nobody's actually capable of disarming them. Nevertheless, well over 100,000 American soldiers are there in the theater being tasked with undertaking a mission that they have no real way to achieve.

Objective facts aside, what gives me pause in Burns' piece is that the administration officials he's talking to seem to me to be overpersonalizing the problem. As if, in their eyes, the issue here is Nouri al-Maliki and things might be much better if he just shaped up or was replaced with someone better. This sort of thing has been a constant flaw in US occupation policy. It all goes back to the belief in the early days that the Sunni insurgency could be combatted simply by locating and capturing Saddam Hussein rather than by coping with the political factors that were leading to insurgency.

The complaints currently being registered against Maliki, meanwhile, are identical in all respects to the ones that were being made about his predecessor, Ibrahim Jafari. And, of course, when Jafari first came in we were treated to tons of optimism that he was the right man for the job and things were quickly going to be on the right track. Then folks got disillusioned with Jafari. Eventually, Bush, Rice, et. al. invested a lot of effort in getting Jafari kicked out of office and having him replaced with Maliki who, it was thought, had the right stuff for the job. Recall that, as recently as May, "Maliki's inauguration was hailed by Washington as a major step forward in restoring stability."

Now Maliki turns out to be inadequate, and one keeps hearing trial balloons about a US-sponsored coup.

The problem, though, isn't with Maliki or with Jafari but with the structure of the situation. Nobody holding that office is going to be able to stay in office if he does what the Americans want him to do. There's no meaningful social basis of support in Iraq for the Bush administration's agenda, and as best I can tell there never has been. The veneer of democratic procedures and the alleged construction of Iraqi security forces have all just been a way to paint a happy face on the reality of a society in which political power grows from the battle of a gun and the guns are in the hands of various mutually antagonistic factions. You can't blame Maliki for responding to the situation he's found himself in. America can -- and someday will -- withdraw from this mess, but it's a life-and-death matter to Iraqi politicians who are just going to be killed if they don't stay on good terms with someone who's sufficiently well-armed to keep them safe.