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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner

Posted: February 22, 2010 11:41 AM

Twilight on the Tigris

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Operation New Dawn! How disarming it would be were this a sign that a bit of dry wit had penetrated the mental fastness that is the American defense establishment. Alas, the truth is that the Pentagon's public relations machine is still grinding away. This administration's dedication to continuing the tradition of dishonest public communication bequeathed it by the Bush bunch is of cardinal importance. For its implications for how we conduct the nation's affairs are deeper and more enduring than this ridiculous try at casting the mantle of success over our gory, corrupt and inept escapade in Iraq. First a few thoughts on the dimensions of our failure there.

The primary features of what Iraq is becoming are marked out by recent developments. Three stand out. The Maliki government used the military police to force the demission of elected officials in Ninevah province who were political opponents of the current regime. That is one. The shadowy Accountability and Justice Commission that vets candidates for the upcoming elections has succeeded in removing from the lists leading Sunni figures along with a potpourri of secularists and dissident Shi'a. That is two. The mastermind of this operation has been Ahmed Chalabi, erstwhile paladin of the neo-conservative schemers who instigated the entire tragic affair. That is three. Chalabi has had intimate ties with Iranian leaders, especially in the powerful security services, from the outset. He always was Tehran's man insofar as he placed his largest bets for gaining personal power on his Iranian co-conspirators. His key role in passing to them information that compromised American secret codes back in 2005 led to his being blacklisted by American officers in Baghdad -- for awhile. Nonetheless, he has remained a powerful behind-the-scenes figure. Now, General Odierno pronounces himself shocked by the discovery that Chalabi and his protégé, Mr. Lami, are the sharp edge of mounting Iranian influence in Iraqi politics. The good general acts as one who had just made the stunning discovery that people in Las Vegas play roulette. Or, perhaps, it's the losing part that leaves him shocked.

The unpalatable truths for the promoters of the 'New Dawn' over the Tigris are that Iranian influence has eclipsed that of the United States, a fact of life regardless of whether we have 130,000 troops on the ground or 13; that Iraq is slipping perceptibly into an autocracy in the mode of other states in the region; that simmering sectarian rivalries (at times violent) will bedevil Iraqi politics for the foreseeable future. We have dared the impossible in Iraq and we have failed abjectly -- that is the long and short of it. Moreover, we have been obtuse in ignoring the writing on the wall even though it has been there in bright neon for years. After all, when Maliki is repeatedly pictured walking hand-in-hand with Mr. Ahmadinejad in Baghdad as well as Tehran they are doing more than observing courtesies.

Yet, too many have too much at stake to let the truth speak for itself; much less to learn its lessons. The authors of our Mesopotamian misadventure have their reputations and current influence at stake. David Petraeus and his cohort have their personal stake in the myth of a modern day Lawrence on a white Arabian stead with a counter insurgency manual in one hand and a sword in the other. The Obama people have their own interests in downplaying the Iraq debacle. For the White House has embarked on its own quixotic adventure in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The ambitions there are as grand, the obstacles as formidable, success as improbable, and the justification only somewhat less fanciful. The key assumptions are the same. Hence, the refusal to highlight the outcome in Iraq that contradicts them. They are: the United States can produce the transformation of an entire culture out of the barrel of a gun; the natives eventually will put their trust in well-intentioned Americans no matter what; it is imperative to dominate militarily the region forevermore; the nation's essential well-being is directly affected by what is going on in these alien places; and, finally, that the audacious goal of reducing to zero the terrorist and pseudo-terrorist threats is realistic.

To face honestly the Iraq fiasco is to undermine support for the escalated commitment in AfPak, since the earlier experience largely invalidates those assumptions. Therefore, their disproval was ignored or studiously misrepresented. That made it easier for the basic questions of 'why' and 'how' in AfPak to be sloughed over. If not put on the table, there is no need to give answers. Accordingly, General Eikenberry, the skeptical nay-sayer who did raise them, was kept on the sidelines of the endless, meandering discussions whose outcome was predetermined.

This is not the way for a great nation to engage matters of high consequence. Bandying around slogans like "Operation New Dawn" is symptomatic of a process that is dishonest and irresponsible at its core. There are limits to how much dishonestly even a resilient country like ours can take, a limit to the costs that it can bear. Instead, our political class should be leading us in a soul searching as to what we as a people want and what is achievable. The living conditions of Americans and the integrity of their public institutions are factors in the equation whether our masters admit it or not. In the present depressed economic circumstances, ones likely to remain with us indefinitely, the trade-offs are momentous. Inescapably, we risk the well-being and health of our citizens by strutting on a field of twisted dreams in Islamic Asia fixated on the chimera of eliminating the last would-be terrorist from the face of the earth. What we have to look forward to is a Cold Dawn -- if not a cold twilight.