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September 03, 2008



I agree with more of this analysis than not.

The American strategy since Gen. Petraeus arrived has been to reduce the incidence of deadly violence in Iraq -- trying to prevent renewed conflagration by cutting the number of ignition sources, not the amount of fuel. The administration's critics here argued that this course was doomed to failure because it did nothing to address the persistanc of sectarian tension and did not force the government to compromise with factions outside it; the administration itself hoped that with violence reduced, the government and various factions around Iraq would eventually come to accomodations to prevent it from returning.

While it may be too early to form conclusions, we ought at least to consider the possibility that both the administration and its critics were mistaken, and that what has actually happened is that American tactics have so strengthened the central authority, while dividing and weakening factions outside the government, that American withdrawal would ultimately produce not a failed state or protracted civil strife but the suppression by the central government of any group capable of sustaining opposition. Arab governments generally don't share power unless they have to; if Maliki doesn't have to, he probably won't.

Of course, this may represent the present appearance more than it does the reality. The government's offensive against the Sadrists, for example, probably wouldn't have gone so well without American military support; he could try something similar against Sunni Arab militias or the Kurds, not get that support, and lose. Elections might be held and show dramatic popular discontent with the government, as suggested in this post. Or Maliki could be assassinated, another event that might force various Iraqi factions to revisit their calculations about the balance of power. It looks now as if he and his government is much stronger than they were, less dependent on the American army and more likely to dominate Iraq without it. This could always be an illusion.

But say, for the sake of argument, that Gause is on the right track here and Maliki is headed for caudillo status. Is this a bad outcome for the United States? Obviously it would be contrary to all the things the Bush administration has said about Operation Iraqi Freedom if it turned out that Bush's war had turned into Operation Iraqi Strongman. Also, the status of the Kurds could turn into a painful issue. Given, though, that as long as we see the form of the Iraqi government as a key American interest we are going to have to keep an army there -- and given that we cannot afford to keep an army there indefinitely -- is a thoroughly undemocratic Iraqi government that allowed us to liquidate the commitment in Iraq undesirable, or is it the best that can be done?

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