McCain Clueless, Contradictory On al-Sadr's Influence In Iraq

04/10/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For all of John McCain's claims to both foreign policy experience and a keen understanding on what needs to be done in Iraq, it seems that with each passing day there is a new gaffe or statement that should cause a rational adult to worry as to whether or not he even has the dimmest idea of what's going on in the world. Yesterday, CNN managed to make note of this. Via ThinkProgress:

In an interview with CNN earlier today, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) claimed that he has long understood the influence of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr:

I said he was still a major player and his influence is going to have to be reduced and gradually eliminated.

But in a report on The Situation Room today, the network noted that just two weeks ago McCain -- trying to paint a rosy picture of Iraq -- described Sadr very differently while speaking to CNN's John King in Baghdad:

His [Sadr's] influence has been on the wane for a long time.

But there is more to this beyond CNN merely catching a politician on the horns of a contradiction. Two weeks ago, McCain was clueless - and the recent hostilities in Basra, driven entirely by al-Sadr more than adequately bear this out. But if McCain's present-day assessment is that al-Sadr's "influence is going to have to be reduced and gradually eliminated," one wonders: isn't this precisely the sort of thing that the "Surge" was supposed to achieve? If the "Surge" was supposed to reduce violence to the point where Nouri al-Maliki's government could find the space to take charge, the simple fact that al-Sadr's forces so easily upset the fragile balance and forced the nascent Iraqi government to hew to its terms indicates that it has failed as a strategy.

In fact, al-Sadr's influence on events on the ground appears to be as solid as ever. From McClatchy:

...few others, from foreign analysts to Basra residents, saw the end of the fighting as a victory for Maliki, who'd said repeatedly that he would not negotiate with Mahdi Army militants. Many saw the role of an Iranian general in brokering the ceasefire that Sadr declared on Sunday as a clear sign that Maliki had badly miscalculated.

"The Iraqi government looks silly in the face of their ardent statements," said Joost Hiltermann, the deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a private group that studies international conflicts. He said the outcome shows "the Iraqi military doesn't have the ability to do much of anything."

Sadr, who was in Iran during the offensive, came out of the confrontation stronger, Hiltermann said.

"He remained undefeated and he looks like the moderate," he said. "He was the one that called for his forces, who were attacked, to stand down."

The trend toward increased violence in early 2008 does not rise to the level of the bloodshed Iraq experienced in mid-to-late 2006, before the surge began. But it does underscore the limits of what the surge achieved, according to U.S. government officials and outside experts, even on the security front where the Bush administration argued it was most successful. "The fact is, the ISF [Iraqi security forces] couldn't fulfill a major campaign against an insurgent group on its own," said a U.S. intelligence analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I personally think that's the real story. The ISF, despite the surge, and despite the [rhetoric from the Bush administration that] 'they'll stand up as we stand down,' couldn't fulfill their core requirement."

Indeed, Iraqi forces could not suppress the Mahdi Army in Iraq's very capital. U.S. armor units rushed to the aid of Maliki's police, many of whom were forced from their checkpoints or opted to join Sadr's insurrectionists...

On that front, some experts say, Sadr's victory over Maliki exposed the weakness of the U.S.'s partner. "In spite of holding de jure power, Maliki can't exert territorial control over even the Shiite regions of Iraq," said Robert Farley, a professor at the University of Kentucky's Paterson School of Diplomacy. "While the surge has reduced violence, it has failed utterly to create Iraqi state capacity. The Iraqi central government is as far as ever from exerting control over other armed groups within Iraq."

Of course, beyond the Sadrist influence, there is Iran, who, as I contended yesterday, have left their fingerprints everywhere. One of the more shocking pieces of news that Ackerman mentions is that the current cease fire in Iraq - which was accepted "almost entirely on Sadr's terms" - was "brokered by an Iranian general, Qassem Suleimani." Suleimani is on the Treasury Department's terrorist watchlist. Precluded from doing business with the United States, Suleimani apparently suffers no such barrier in Iraq. This is the strategy that the McCain White House would prolong?

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