Maliki and the Cordon

MALIKI AND THE CORDON….The White House is doing its best to distract everyone’s attention from this by feigning outrage over a botched John Kerry joke about George Bush’s college study habits, but I wonder if Tuesday’s news from Iraq will eventually get any traction?

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki demanded the removal of American checkpoints from the streets of Baghdad on Tuesday, in what appeared to be his latest and boldest gambit in an increasingly tense struggle for more independence from his American protectors.

….The language of the declaration, which implied that Mr. Maliki had the power to command American forces, seemed to overstep his authority and to be aimed at placating his Shiite constituency.

The withdrawal was greeted with jubilation in the streets of Sadr City, the densely populated Shiite enclave where the Americans have focused their manhunt and where anti-American sentiment runs high.

So: an American soldier is abducted and held in Sadr City, the Army sets up a cordon in an effort to force the soldier’s release, but then meekly gives in when Maliki orders them to. This whole situation seems tailor-made for Democrats in an election year: Why have we abandoned an American soldier? Why are we letting Maliki give orders to U.S. generals? Who’s in charge over there?

So far, though, Democrats have restrained themselves. Is this because they know in their hearts that letting Maliki call the shots in this case was the right thing to do, and they’ve decided they don’t want to politicize the situation? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. The Dubai port deal was almost certainly the right thing to do too, but that didn’t stop Dems from mounting a two-week frenzy over the whole thing. There’s probably some other calculation going on. Or maybe they just need a day or two to get their act together.

I mention this mainly because bowing to pressure from Maliki probably was the right thing to do, for at least a couple of reasons. First, it’s impossible for Maliki to control the political situation in Iraq, as we want him to do, unless the various Iraqi factions believe he has genuine influence over the U.S. military. If we had swatted him down in a high-profile case like this, it would have been tantamount to a death sentence.

Second, Maliki might very well have saved us from ourselves. After all, our cordon had already been in place for eight days without result, and there was no indication that it ever would have worked. (Hezbollah endured a thousand deaths and two months of destruction in Lebanon and still wouldn’t release the abducted Israeli soldiers that started that war.) My guess is that the militants who held the U.S. soldier would never have released him, and that they even viewed the growing chaos in Sadr City as a positive benefit. Keeps the locals riled up against the American occupation, you know.

So Maliki probably did us a favor by giving us an excuse to back down yesterday. In a broader sense, though, the story of the Sadr City cordon is the story of Iraq in a microcosm: tactics unsuited to the fight, no exit strategy when those tactics turn out not to work, and eventually a clear demonstration of the limits of American power. The military set up the cordon because they didn’t want to simply do nothing, but then had to stick with it forever because anything less would show a “lack of resolve.” In a way, Maliki rescued us from our own folly on Tuesday.

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