‘Strate­gic pa­tience’ in Iraq would also ben­e­fit Democrats A

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Mor­ton Kon­dracke

s Congress con­sid­ers its next steps on Iraq war fund­ing, it ought to heed the warn­ing of the U.S. am­bas­sador there: Giv­ing Iraqis the idea Amer­i­cans are leav­ing the scene hurts — not helps — the slow process of Iraqi rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

“The longer and louder the de­bate gets” in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Am­bas­sador Ryan Crocker said in a tele­phone in­ter­view from Bagh­dad, “the more dan­ger there is that Iraqis will con­clude that we are go­ing,” lead­ing to “a hard­en­ing of at­ti­tudes” among sec­tar­ian fac­tions.

He said there is slow progress on the po­lit­i­cal as well as the mil­i­tary front in Iraq but that he fears Amer­ica lacks “strate­gic pa­tience” and, as a vet­eran of ser­vice dur­ing Le­banon’s hor­rific civil war in the 1980s, “the po­ten­tial con­se­quences do scare me.”

Mr. Crocker, 57, pre­vi­ously am­bas­sador in Pak­istan, Le­banon, Kuwait and Syria and who has held other diplo­matic posts in Iraq, Iran and Egypt, told me that if the United States fails in Iraq, “it could look like Afghanistan pre-Septem­ber 11, 2001, and that just scares the hell out of me.”

Mr. Crocker’s mes­sage on the ef­fects of dead­line and with­drawal pro­pos­als in Wash­ing­ton dif­fers from the one dis­pensed by De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert Gates, who said last month that “the de­bate in Congress — has been help­ful in demon­strat­ing to the Iraqis that Amer­i­can pa­tience is lim­ited.” Demo­cratic lead­ers have cited Mr. Gates to ar­gue they are ad­vanc­ing U.S. in­ter­ests by chal­leng­ing Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion pol­icy in Iraq and push­ing dead­lines for troop with­drawals.

But Mr. Crocker said it makes his job of achiev­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion harder. “It is one thing when the ad­min­is­tra­tion says our pa­tience is not un­lim­ited. When you have Congress talk­ing about timeta­bles, with­drawal, cut­ting off funds, ‘the war is lost,’ etc., I think you move from use­ful pres­sure to where it con­vinces them we are leav­ing.”

In­stead of work­ing on rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, he said, the par­ties “start cal­cu­lat­ing where they want to be when we’re gone. It takes ev­ery­one back to their worst na­ture.”

Shi’ites, he said, re­sist rec­on­cil­ing with Sun­nis “be­cause it might strengthen the Ba’athists, who want to put the boot back on their neck. Sun­nis say, ‘build the trenches, man the bar­ri­cades. [Shi’ites] have the num­bers, so get ready to fight.’ And the Kurds up in the North fig­ure they should run for in­de­pen­dence be­cause there isn’t go­ing to be a uni­fied Iraq.”

He said “things are hap­pen­ing” on the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion agenda, but on a timetable that can’t pos­si­bly work as fast as the po­lit­i­cal timetable in Wash­ing­ton. “I worry that our timetable is run­ning so fast, it will de­rail theirs.”

As progress, he cited the Iraq par­lia­ment’s ap­proval this week of a nine-mem­ber, multi-sec­tar­ian elec­toral com­mis­sion to over­see pro­vin­cial elec­tions; an­other all-sect com­mis­sion plan to send con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments to par­lia­ment this month; and con­tin­u­ing work on hy­dro­car­bon rev­enue shar­ing.

It’s also progress, he said, that Sunni tribal lead­ers and sec­u­lar Sunni in­sur­gents are killing al Qaeda op­er­a­tives, pos­si­bly even its leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and that Shi’ite mil­i­tant Sheik Muq­tada al-Sadr is in Iran and his fol­low­ers are splin­ter­ing.

When Sheik al-Sadr or­dered his af­fil­i­ated min­is­ters out of Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki’s cabi­net, Mr. Crocker said, two re­fused to leave and one asked for U.S. as­sis­tance in re­main­ing.

When I asked Mr. Crocker about his con­fi­dence level in Mr. al-Ma­liki, he said, “He’s an in­tel­li­gent, fun­da­men­tally de­cent in­di­vid­ual who has one of the most hellish jobs on Earth. I think the Arabs — the Saudis and oth­ers — have been com­pletely wrong to ac­cuse him of be­ing a tool of the Ira­ni­ans.

“I’ve only been here a month, but I’ve spent a lot of time with him. His party [Dawa] is his­tori- cally not that close to Iran. He does not speak Per­sian, and he has been crit­i­cal of the Ira­ni­ans in ways that do not seem cal­cu­lated ex­clu­sively for the ears of the Amer­i­can am­bas­sador. I also do not feel that he is vis­cer­ally sec­tar­ian. I’ve heard him speak sym­pa­thet­i­cally of the Iraqi Is­lamic Party, the Sunni party in gov­ern­ment. They and Dawa have a great deal in com­mon. They both suf­fered hor­ri­bly un­der Sad­dam. Nei­ther party ever es­tab­lished a mil­i­tary wing, which makes them pretty unique around here.”

At the same time, Mr. Crocker said, Mr. al-Ma­liki “is weak as an ad­min­is­tra­tor. He never ran a ma­jor or­ga­ni­za­tion be­fore. The life he led un­der Sad­dam led him to be se­cre­tive. And, you know, the prime min­is­ter of Iraq is not an in­de­pen­dent ac­tor. He has got to gov­ern backed by a coali­tion with a lot of di­vi­sions.

“I think a lot of what many term as Ma­liki’s fail­ings are im­posed by the sys­tem, not by any­thing in the man.”

The hard­est of the “bench­marks” for Iraq’s civil­ians to meet, Mr. Crocker said, re­gards de-Ba’athi­fi­ca­tion — specif­i­cally, al­low­ing for­mer mem­bers of Sad­dam Hus­sein’s party back into gov­ern­ment posts. Al Qaeda’s sui­cide bomb­ings in Shia neigh­bor­hoods have hard­ened at­ti­tudes to­ward all Sun­nis, he said.

With Democrats ad­vo­cat­ing pro­pos­als to with­draw aid from Mr. al-Ma­liki’s gov­ern­ment if it doesn’t meet “bench­marks,” the dis­con­nect be­tween U.S. timeta­bles and Iraq’s may be­come yet more pro­nounced — and fail­ure more likely.

Mr. Crocker said the con­se­quences of U.S. fail­ure could in­clude “re­ally hor­rific” street-bystreet sec­tar­ian war­fare in still-mixed Bagh­dad, plus tri­umph for U.S. en­e­mies such as al Qaeda and Iran, and a re­gional con­flict.

Mr. Crocker was a young po­lit­i­cal of­fi­cer in Le­banon dur­ing its civil war, Is­rael’s in­va­sion and the mas­sacre of hun­dreds of Pales­tinian civil­ians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. He was blood­ied in Hezbol­lah’s 1983 bomb­ing of the U.S. Em­bassy in Beirut that killed 63 peo­ple. “My own ex­pe­ri­ence teaches me,” he said, “that when some­thing goes se­ri­ously, ir­re­triev­ably bad, the depth and breadth of bad is some­thing I don’t even have the ca­pac­ity to imag­ine.”

It’s a warn­ing to Congress. This may be Ge­orge Bush’s war. And fail­ure would be pri­mar­ily Mr. Bush’s do­ing. But Democrats now share re­spon­si­bil­ity for how it ends. Pulling Amer­i­can troops out is not the end of the story. And a Demo­cratic pres­i­dent might well have to pick up the bloody pieces. This calls for strate­gic pa­tience.

Mor­ton Kon­dracke is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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