Helman: Bush’s Stage-Managed Photo Op with Sunni Sheikhs May Spell Trouble in Future

Ambassador Gerald B. Helman writes:

Perhaps the most telling commentary on the situation today in Iraq is the choice of a remote, heavily fortified US airbase in Anbar province for the President’s third visit to Iraq. He was joined by his senior national security officials, all kinds of four-stars, including General Petreus, and Ambassador Crocker. Iraq’s senior government officials were summoned from Baghdad, as well; President Bush had the pleasant task of introducing them to some local cooperating Sunni Sheiks. One can imagine that everyone was coached to dutifully smile for the cameras.

Last year, by contrast, when the President visited Iraq he held his meetings in Baghdad’s Green Zone, met and sought to encourage, identify with, and thus strengthen Iraq’s constitutional government. Democracy was messy, the security situation dire, but still Iraq’s was a democratically elected government, ruling over a newly sovereign country, a living expression of the President’s vision of spreading democracy and freedom. It thus merited our support.

The visit to Anbar was pure theater. Bush did not need to go there to get briefed by Petreus and Crocker. He certainly has received the elaborated substance of their reports, which will be incorporated, probably in some modified fashion in the report Bush is required to send to Congress on September 15. It is hardly believable that their solo testimony next week to Congress will hold any unpleasant surprises for the White House.

The point of the elaborately staged Anbar soundbite was not to tout the claimed (modest) success of the Surge–that has been done many multiple times in the briefngs, the “dog and pony shows,” given to visiting congressmen, journalists, and analysts. Rather, it was to build up an alternative story of political success in response to the clear failure of political reconciliation among the contending parties in the Government of Iraq. It was only a few months ago that Congress and the Administration went clearly on record that the strategic point of the surge was to bring about such reconciliation, as defined by the benchmarks contained in our law. But not even the Administration, Petraeus or Crocker could claim that the political benchmarks have been met or that they are likely to be met in the foreseeable future. Rather than admit the obvious–that the Surge has been a failure because it has not and probably will not meet its strategic goals–the President and his men are now developing an alternative to the political goals set by Congress and the President three months ago. Rather than “top/down” political progress to be evidenced by meeting the stated benchmarks, what is really valuable is “bottom/up” progress, the kind that is represented by Sunni Sheiks cooperating with the US by taking our weapons to chase down largely other, radical Iraqis under the banner of al Qaeda of Mesopotamia. What we will hear next week, is testimony by Petraeus and Crocker, combined with a largely staged campaign of articles, backgrounders and op-ed pieces, that seek to redefine the political goalposts and conclude that they are being met through the newly identified “bottom-up” phenomenon.

But what really appears to be happening is that the US, for valid near term tactical military goals, is supporting local traditional political structures that are tribal, authoritarian and non-transparent to combat radical Sunnis associated with local al Qaeda affiliates. The sheiks are not democratic or elected. But they are certainly important. And they also, not surprisingly, have their own political agendas. These Sunni tribal sheiks were one of Saddam Hussein’s central constituencies. They supported him, provided him with manpower and officers, and benefited hugely from his largesse. They and their constituencies were the ones who suffered most from the fall of Saddam, the rise of Shiite power, the growing Iranian influence, the Kurdish efforts to recover claimed territory, the adoption of a national constitution that failed to take account of Sunni interests and the looming possibility that they will be denied what they would consider a fair share of future oil revenues. And to top it off, radical Sunni Islamists were challenging their traditional authority, and the American army was decimating their population and landscape.

So the Sunni sheiks appear now to be doing what the Shiites and others have done: find ways to bring the US to support their objectives. The main Shiite objective was to assert its majority status in Iraq to gain political control. Democracy served that purpose at least to the extent that it allows control of substantial state assets and means of coercion, gives Shiite militias operating room, and suppresses the Sunnis. The Kurds have also improved their already favored position with the US in order to establish an almost independent state, assert their additional territorial claims largely against the Sunnis (which also would bring more oil). Both the Shiites and the Kurds have an interest in a limited government in Baghdad, under their control.

To now compete, the Sunnis can offer the US to fight the radical al Qaeda types in their midst, a truce in their armed resistance to the US army, and undying opposition to the “Persians.” In exchange, they receive weapons, training and “reconstruction teams.” But it is the arms and training that count, to be used now against radical Islamist elements, but later to help recover the status and power they lost when Saddam was overthrown. We also should not assume that by making “nice” today, the Sunni sheiks will not in their good time turn on us.

There are reasons why “reconciliation” at the Federal level has been so hard to achieve. Those benchmark measures would largely serve to restore some of the position that Sunnis have lost and assure them of some cut in the nation’s oil wealth. The same fear of Sunni revanchism leads the Shiite federal leadership to view with concern the arming of Sunnis by the US. They know what’s coming and will have none of it. From the standpoint of the US, the short-term gain in Anbar has to be weighed against the further distancing of federal reconciliation prospects and additional reliance by the Shiites on the Iranian connection. “Bottom-up,” while suggesting something snappy and positive, instead will further confirm Shiite fear of Sunni purposes and reinforce the continuing suspicion that the Shiites will again be abandoned by the US. Wittingly or otherwise, the US reinforces that suspicion through active speculation on changing the leadership or even the nature of Iraq’s government.

As far as real US policy is concerned, much of this will make little difference. President Bush continues to demonstrate that he will not budge from Iraq. He does not want his heritage to carry the weight of retreat and defeat, regardless of the lives lost and treasure wasted. He’ll leave that to the next president. Profile in courage?

Gerald B. Helman “was United States Ambassador to the European Office of the United Nations from 1979 through 1981.”