Can Gen. Petraeus and Ryan Crocker Save the Next Democratic President?

Despite what the pundits will say, I fear the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on the Hill Monday and Tuesday is not a turning point, does not give Bush breathing room, and is largely irrelevant.

To any extent that what they do in Iraq ends up making a real positive difference, Petraeus and Crocker will likely be doing the Democrats a big favor, not Bush, who won’t be in office much longer.

The central question is whether the Democrats can force a significant reduction of troops from Iraq on Bush’s watch, so as to avoid Iraq becoming exclusively their headache when they (as is likely) take over the White House in January of 2009. If they could, this drawdown would be the best option. Certainly, that is what a majority of Iraqis thinks, according to the new BBC/ABC poll.

But the answer is: No. The Democrats cannot get the troops out of Iraq because they cannot overturn a Bush veto in the House of Representatives, and because they cannot overcome the need for a consensus of 60 senators in the Senate. Some Democrats, such as Joe Lieberman, oppose a rapid withdrawal. And the likelihood that 11 Republican senators will suddenly become withdrawalniks between now and November, 2008, is negligible.

The testimony of Petraeus and Crocker may marginally reinforce the will of the Republicans to stay the course, but I do not think it is decisive. In all likelihood, the Republican senators would have continued to block their Democratic colleagues from doing anything really dramatic, anyway.

If the Democrats cannot prevail in withdrawing before Bush goes out of office (and they cannot), and if they then rapidly draw down the troops on taking office in 2009, they face the real prospect of a “Gerald Ford meltdown” of the sort that occurred in 1975 when the North Vietnamese and their VC allies took over South Vietnam.

You will note that Ford only served a couple of years as president and lost his election bid to a relative unknown named Jimmy Carter. Although economic stagflation and the stain of Watergate contributed to his defeat, I think the spectacle of the debacle in Indochina harmed Ford a great deal. The United States lost a war, and lost out to its ideological rival in an entire subcontinent of Asia in the midst of the Cold War. That would cause at least some Republicans to stay home in 1976, a sure way for Democrats to win an election.

Could 2010 look for Iraq like 1975 looked in Vietnam? Yes. I just do not see evidence that either the new Iraqi political class or the Iraqi security forces are likely to have the maturity to avoid a conflagration when the US military withdraws.

There are three major wars going on in Iraq: 1) for control of oil-rich Basra, among Shiite militias and tribes; 2) for control of Baghdad and its hinterlands between Sunni Arabs and Shiites; and 3) for control of oil-rich Kirkuk in the north, between Kurds on the one side and Arabs and Turkmen on the other.

Gen. Petraeus believes that the Sunni-Shiite struggle for Baghdad is the central struggle, and that if it cannot be calmed down, nothing can be accomplished. His main energies have been put into reducing violence in Baghdad itself, in which he has succeeded to a limited extent (i.e. getting violence back down to summer, 2006, levels instead of astronomical January 2007 levels).

The successes in Baghdad are ambiguous, not clear-cut. The year 2006 was particularly bloody, so getting to that level is not satisfactory. The reduction in statistics on sectarian violence has not prevented hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs from being ethnically cleansed (mainly displaced) from Baghdad, turning it from a city that was 65 percent Shiite and 35 percent Sunni into one that is 75 percent Shiite and rising. The Sunni Arabs of al-Anbar, whether they hate “al-Qaeda” or not, say in interviews that they support the withdrawal of the Sunni Arab Iraqi Accord Front from the al-Maliki government, precisely on the grounds that al-Maliki is entangled with the Shiite militias that are displacing the Sunni Arabs from Baghdad.

Further, Gen. Petraeus has frankly admitted that whatever successes he has had in Baghdad militarily (and he has had some there) have not yet translated into solid political gains in Sunni-Shiite reconciliation. He continues to entertain hopes that they will be so translated, but all he can proffer us in this regard is exactly that, hopes.

Petraeus’s perspective ignores the over-all rise in civilian deaths in 2007 compared to 2006, and pays no attention to Shiite-Shiite violence in Basra and Karbala. He also codes the Arab attack on Yazidi Kurds as an “al-Qaeda” act of violence. In fact, it was part of an ethnic struggle for control of land and oil in the Iraqi north that is just as destabilizing, potentially, as is the battle for Baghdad. He points to Iraqi security forces policing provinces such as Muthanna and Nasiriya in the Shiite south. It has to be acknowledged, however, that those provincial security forces are dominated by the Badr Corps militia of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which was trained and may still be being partially funded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. And they are in an ongoing struggle with the Mahdi Army militia, also Shiite but more Iraqi nativist.

My own expectation is that unless Iraqi politicians become far more canny and powerful during the next two years, then when the American forces withdraw, the ethnic and sectarian militias will fight the three wars (Basra, Baghdad, Kirkuk) to a conclusion. It will likely be a bloody war similar to that in Afghanistan in the 1990s. With the Americans not around, it is possible that large militia forces will fight set piece battles.

There is also a danger of the neighbors being drawn into a big proxy fight in Iraq (including the Saudis, the Iranians, the Jordanians, the Syrians and the Turks).

Neither outcome is inevitable. If al-Maliki learns how to cultivate the Sunni Arabs as well as Petraeus has been (and if the Sunni Arabs will accept it from al-Maliki, which is not assured), then he might be able to draw them into his orbit just as King Feisal did in the 1920s. Al-Maliki’s government is said to have $10 bn. in oil revenue that it refuses to spend; that could buy some loyalty.

Likewise, the US, the Europeans and the Arab League could work hard diplomatically to avoid a proxy war among the neighbors, and it might be avoided. I am heartened that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad of Iran seem intent on continuing to dialogue, and to avoid tensions reaching a fever picth between the two countries. If the US had any sense, it would be warmly encouraging this diplomacy, not trying to get the Arabs and Israelis to gang up on Iran.

But in all likelihood, when the Democratic president pulls US troops out in summer of 2009, all hell is going to break loose. The consequences may include even higher petroleum prices than we have seen recently, which at some point could bring back stagflation or very high rates of inflation.

In other words, the Democratic president risks being Fordized when s/he withdraws from Iraq, by the aftermath. A one-term president associated with humiliation abroad and high inflation at home? Maybe I should say, Carterized. The Republican Party could come back strong in 2012 and then dominate politics for decades, if that happened.

It is all so unfair, of course, since Bush started and prosecuted this disaster in Iraq, and Bush is refusing to accept responsibility for the failure, pushing it off onto his successor.

But life is unfair.

So what can the Dems do to avoid being made the fall guy this way?

They could try to legislate stronger US diplomacy aiming at ensuring peace between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran even if there is sectarian violence on a greater scale in Iraq. They could resist the temptation to demonize Iran or to push it onto a war footing with threats or even bombings.

As for Iraq itself, the best hope for the Dems may be that Gen. Petraeus actually succeeds, over the next year, in significantly reducing ethnic tensions. It is a slim reed to hold onto, as they recognize.

But from the moment Bush went into Iraq, Americans were screwed. And that includes the Democratic Party, which is being set up to take the fall.

I’m a severe skeptic on the likelihood of anything that looks like success in Iraq. But I don’t think career public servants such as Ryan Crocker and David Petraeus are acting as partisan Republicans in their Iraq efforts. I think they both are sincere, experienced men attempting to retrieve what they can for America from Bush’s catastrophe. They may as well try, since the Democrats can’t over-rule Bush and get the troops out, anyway. If the troops are there, they may as well at least be deployed intelligently, which is what Gen. Petraeus is doing. I wish them well in their Herculean labors. Because if they fail, I have a sinking feeling that we are all going down with them, including the next Democratic president. And their success is a long shot.