Bottom’s Up

BOTTOM’S UP….Last week in the Washington Post, John Podesta, Lawrence Korb and Brian Katulis wrote an op-ed critical of the surge:

Proponents of the current path claim that, after four years of failed strategies, the surge was needed to get Iraq on track. They point to recent declines in the overall level of violence and cooperation at the local level between some Sunni insurgents and U.S. forces. But the progress being made at the local level often undermines the stated goal of creating a unified, stable, democratic Iraq.

Mickey Kaus complains that when you write a sentence like the last one, it sort of demands an explanation. How exactly does progress at the local level hurt the chances of national reconciliation?

He’s right. It demands an explanation. But the answer is fairly straightforward. First, the more power that local sheikhs and local militias have, the less likely it is that they’ll be willing to give up authority to a central government. Organizing the Sunnis outside of the state fosters confrontation, not integration. Second, Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite allies are increasingly unhappy about our cooperation with Sunni sheikhs and are using it as a convenient excuse to avoid making any compromises at a national level. Shia leaders worry more about making concessions to a group that’s increasingly well armed and well organized, not less. Third, for all practical purposes we’re arming and organizing both sides in a future civil war. Australian Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, until recently a senior advisor to Gen. David Petraeus, admitted as much here.

Put it all together, and the fear is that we’re essentially creating the conditions for a warlord state, not a centrally controlled nation state or even a loose federation. It’s worth keeping in mind that our current “bottoms up” approach wasn’t a strategy that we consciously chose, it was something we stumbled on and accepted out of necessity. It’s a strategy full of contradictions, and making it work is a tightrope walk that requires literally everything to break our way. In a place like Iraq, those are bad odds.