Did the United States have advance notice of Maliki's decision to attack Basra? In a much-blogged story this morning, The Washington Post reported that "Maliki decided to launch the offensive without consulting his U.S. allies, according to administration officials" and that they were all arguing over "who's got the best conspiracy theory about why Maliki decided to act now" (fortunately, they had this handy guide).
Eric Martin, like many others, is skeptical, pointing to reporting prior to the offensive and to the timing of Cheney's visit, as well as to the incentives for both the Iraqis and the Americans to pretend that it was an Iraqi initiative. It is very hard to believe that they would or could actually initiate such a high-risk offensive without consulting the US. On the other hand, several people in a position to know have now told me that as far as they knew the US in fact did not have advance notice. This doesn't prove anything. My sources might have incentives to mislead, or more likely might not know what transpired in private meetings between Cheney and Maliki. Bush's giddy public enthusiasm for the offensive does contrast starkly with General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker's public silence.
Now, perhaps Maliki really did get the green light from Cheney during that visit, and this is all part of the plan. Or perhaps they reached a general agreement on the principle of an offensive at some point in the future, and only the timing was a surprise. In that case, at least we could take comfort in the thought that there was a plan, even if it wasn't a very good plan, and that Maliki wasn't working at cross-purposes with Petraeus and Crocker's military and political efforts.
If in fact Maliki did act without consulting the Americans, it would be a textbook illustration of the moral hazard problem created by unqualified American support about which I've written so often. This is the definition of moral hazard: "the prospect that a party insulated from risk may behave differently from the way it would behave if it were fully exposed to the risk. Moral hazard arises because an individual or institution does not bear the full consequences of its actions, and therefore has a tendency to act less carefully than it otherwise would, leaving another party to bear some responsibility for the consequences of those actions."
That sounds like a perfect description of this situation, if in fact Maliki acted on his own. Perhaps Maliki misjudged the balance of forces and expected to win without help (Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim: "We supposed that this operation would be a normal operation, but we were surprised by this resistance and have been obliged to change our plans and our tactics."). Perhaps he entered with insufficient force because he knew that he would get US backup. Either way, he entered Basra knowing full well that if his forces failed to achieve their goals, American forces would have no choice but to come to his assistance and prevent an outright Iraqi Army defeat. That is the precise definition of moral hazard. We've created it, and it has to end.
When the fighting is over, I'd hope that Petraeus and Crocker would have a good long talk about this with their Iraqi counterparts, with the administration, and with the press. Many Americans might like to know whether or not there were prior consultations before the Iraqi government launched a potentially pivotal - in either direction - military offensive. If there were, then the logic needs to be explained. If there weren't, then... well, then there's a lot that we'd like to know. These might be excellent questions to pose to Crocker and Petraeus when they testify before Congress in a few weeks.
... UPDATE: though listening to the latest round of reporting, the comments by unnamed US military officials to the effect of "we were hoping that the Iraqi forces could handle this themselves" suggest more active US involvement and less surprise, at least on the broad strokes if not the timing. I'm sure we'll be hearing more about this.