The Sunni al-Tawafuq bloc has reportedly followed through on its threat to quit the Maliki government (but not withdraw from Parliament). They've threatened to withdraw so many times that it's tempting to wait and see if they really do it, but after the bitter arguments over the last week it would be hard for them to back down without completely losing credibility so they probably will. It won't cause Maliki's government to fall, since he doesn't need their votes. But it does matter, for two reasons.
First, the internal Sunni dimension. Sunni political parties which entered the political process have become increasingly desperate to show any fruits from their participation. They have been accused by their constituents of offering a Sunni fig leaf to a Shia sectarian government, of pursuing personal interests over national or Sunni interests, and of being played for suckers. The Iraqi Islamic Party of Tareq al-Hashemi used to be considered the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, but now the insurgent group Hamas Iraq clearly claims that mantle (you can see it in how they are featured in the Ikhwan websites and forums). Even the much-hyped American Sunni tribal strategy can be seen as an end-run around the national Sunni political parties, working directly with tribal leaders at the local level rather than dealing with the politicians. Finally, the Sunni political parties are deeply threatened by the moves by the nationalist-oriented insurgency groups into the public political realm: the insurgency's claim to be the only authentic representatives of the Sunni community directly threatens the relevance of these political parties. Desperate to demonstrate their relevance, the Sunni bloc seems to have decided upon last week's direct challenge: either they would emerge with some clear gains to push back against these various political threats, or else they would pull out and reposition themselves as a political opposition. Neither is likely to work, but they don't have many cards to play.
Second, for the United States it is a blunt indicator that the "surge" has failed. War supporters want us to focus on the tactical level, which is what the shifts in Sunni strategy really amounts to (even if, as I've been arguing, those shifts are being consistently misinterpreted). But these tactical military indicators were never supposed to be the point. Back when the new policy was announced, administration officials and top military leaders clearly recognized the priority of the political process. I was told, like many others, that the point of the surge was to create a secure space to allow the chance for political reconciliation. Even General Petraeus used to be very clear about the fact that his military strategy had to be in the service of a national political strategy (though his more recent argument that the initiative had passed to the local level offered an implicitly damning assessment which should have received more critical attention). It has long been clear that this political process wasn't just not moving forward but was actually deteriorating. The Sunni bloc's withdrawal from the Maliki government - to say nothing of the cavalier response from Iraqi government spokesmen - just puts a capstone on this long-manifest reality. (It's worth asking how the US could possibly have so little influence over Maliki's government, which listens to all these American demands and appeals for political reconciliation but does nothing - could it be that Bush's refusal to consider a withdrawal leaves the US with no leverage or credibility?)
Nobody who follows Iraq really needs the recitation of failed political benchmarks, I suppose, but it's worth stating it bluntly: The Bush administration argued that its new strategy should be judged by the political process, not at the military level, and by its own standards it has clearly failed. Switching the focus back to tactical military developments may allow administration defenders to put forward signs of 'progress' - however ephemeral, dubious, or beside the point - but serious people shouldn't join in this shell game. The administration and its supporters sold the surge on the premise that it would pay its dividends at the level of national Iraqi politics. It hasn't. The Sunnis have left the government, none of the political benchmarks have been met, and they won't be since the Parliament has adjourned until September. No honest report from Ambassador Crocker - who is an honest man and a very good diplomat - will be able to portray any progress, or prospects for progress, on the national political front.
Posted on August 01, 2007 at 09:57 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)