Out here in Hollywood almost everyone seems to be a screenwriter – it’s just a local thing. You have one in the drawer, or if not an actual screenplay, a treatment – four or five pages of what the screenplay would be, if you ever got around to writing the damned thing. It’s a Los Angeles joke – whatever you do for a living you’re secretly a screenwriter, save for the waiters in the local restaurants, who all seem to be actors, really. Come visit. You’ll see. Everyone has dreams.
But even the most casual of would-be screenwriters – even if they don’t trot off to those highly specialized stores in West Los Angeles and buy screenwriting software (like Final Draft 7.1.3) – knows the basics. Major stalemates are good – you need one of those. The stalemate is the core of things – there seems no possible resolution to the conflict, whatever it is you’ve cooked up. The audience is on the edge of their seats. You’ve got them hooked. Then you resolve the conflict, the good guys win, or the two who met cute and fell out find, oddly, that they were meant for each other and walk off into the sunset. The audience cheers and fame and fortune follow, depending on how outlandish whatever you choose as a means to resolve things turns out to be. It was all a dream? That’ll get you nowhere. That’s amateur stuff.
It really is too bad life doesn’t work like that, ever. Stalemates don’t get resolved. They usually just sort of fade away, each side putting less and less energy and interest into the matter, until, finally, something else comes along that’s far more pressing. Perhaps that’s how the cold war ended – we didn’t win the great ideological battle of the last century so much as the other side just sort of fell to pieces, unable to sustain the oomph that was required to go on. We had the oomph and they didn’t – there was no decisive battle. And the Korean War never ended – there was no signing of any terms of surrender. It just sort of stalled, and people went about their business. Yeah, there was World War II and Vietnam, one clear win and one loss, with the evacuation of Saigon and that one last helicopter lifting off from the embassy roof. But most all other stalemates just became… stale. Other matters came up. We all moved on.
Still, everyone has dreams, and in what seems like a stalemate, the old Hollywood need for that satisfying resolution kicks in. We like stories – good ones, with intense conflict and that gratifying resolution. The problem is we got ourselves stuck in Iraq, and it seems no resolution is imaginable. Some want a win, some want to haul ass out of there before the military is in shambles and the economy a sad joke and we have bread lines. Neither is likely.
This became depressingly clear on Tuesday, April 8, when our top military man there, David Petraeus, and our ambassador there, Ryan Crocker, testified again to Congress, as they had the previous September. It was the same message – things aren’t good, but they might get better, so we need more time for more of the same. It’s the same stalemate as last autumn, as with the last five years. You expected some hint of a Hollywood ending? Life isn’t like that.
The account of what transpired is captured nicely in the item from McClatchy Newspapers, with its instructive headline, As Petraeus Testifies, Baghdad Teeters on Edge of Erupting:
Army Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were critical of Iran when they testified Tuesday before the Senate, barely giving credit for an Iranian-brokered cease-fire that curbed the killing after a week of Shiite-on-Shiite bloodshed in southern Iraq and Baghdad.
As they spoke, firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr threatened to unleash his Mahdi Army militia against U.S. and Iraqi forces. Once again, it was Iran that stepped into the political vacuum and urged a halt to militia attacks into the heavily fortified Green Zone, where U.S. and Iraqi officials, including Petraeus and Crocker, have their offices.
The Iranian foreign ministry called for “restraint and prudence of various Iraqi groups,” an implicit rebuke of Sadr, who is living and studying in Iran.
So Iran is messing up the Hollywood ending, even if they seem actually to be helping keep a lid on things, getting folks to stop firing rockets and mortars into the Green Zone, where we have our embassy and the current Iraqi government operates. Yeah, it’s crazy.
But it is dramatic, in an epic sort of way. Over the weekend, Muqtada al-Sadr had said he would consult the seventy-seven-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and other senior Shiite clerics, and abide by their ruling if they told him to disband his Mahdi Army. But there was a plot twist:
Iraq’s top Shiite religious leaders have told anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr not to disband his Mehdi Army, an al-Sadr spokesman said Monday amid fresh fighting in the militia’s Baghdad strongholds.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki demanded Sunday that the cleric disband his militia, which waged two uprisings against U.S. troops in 2004, or see his supporters barred from public office.
But al-Sadr spokesman Salah al-Obeidi said al-Sadr has consulted with Iraq’s Shiite clerical leadership “and they refused that.” He did not provide details of the talks.
Okay – quick cut to the Situation Room on CNN, the host Wolf Blitzer speaking with their man in Baghdad, that Australian fellow with the wonderful accent, Michael Ware. Run the video:
BLITZER: Quick question, we just heard Nic’s report from Sadr City. Can the Iraqi forces loyal to the Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki crush these Shi’ite militias in Sadr City with U.S. military help?
WARE: Well, first Wolf, I think you’d have to find which of these Iraqi units actually have soldiers loyal to Nouri al Maliki. Because, let’s bear in mind, much like the government itself, the Iraqi security forces are comprised of and drawn from the militias themselves. Now, whilst you do have other recruits who’ve just shown up for a paycheck, at the end of the day, the troops on the ground are drawn from the militias, are drawn from the political factions. These are the building blocks of Iraqi political power. And Nouri al Maliki, the prime minister, doesn’t have a militia and given that guns, the barrel of the gun is still the currency of political power in Iraq; Nouri al Maliki has little but words and some influence. Real power rests elsewhere.
That’s juicy – just like in a political thriller. And Reuters adds evidence that Iran might be taking Maliki’s side in his attempt to weaken the Mahdi Army:
Iran voiced support on Monday for Iraq’s prime minister in a crackdown on a Shi’ite militia but blamed U.S. forces for civilian deaths in the fighting.
… [Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali] Hosseini, whose comments were translated by Iran’s state Press TV satellite station, said Maliki’s action was aimed at “confronting illegal armed groups” and this was in the interest of Iraq and its neighbors.
Cool – intense conflict! And Kevin Drum adds the compelling detail:
Now, Iran supports both Sadr’s Mahdi Army and ISCI’s Badr Organization, which is affiliated with Maliki’s Dawa Party (and therefore, ironically, with us). However, Iran’s primary proxy is unquestionably ISCI (which is, yes, doubly ironic), and it’s at least possible that they may view the current turmoil as a good opportunity to begin the process of withdrawing support from Sadr and backing ISCI more wholeheartedly.
That’ll grab the audience – ironies within ironies. Who are the bad guys? Who are the good guys?
And the bad guy, who had declared a ceasefire, now has second thoughts:
“I call on the Iraqi government, if it exists, to work for the protection of the Iraqi people, stop the bloodshed and the abuse of its honor,” said al-Sadr, who faces an ultimatum by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to either disband his Mahdi Army or give up politics.
“If the public interest dictates the lifting of the freeze to achieve our goals, beliefs, religion, principles and patriotism we shall do that later,” he said…
Using typical rhetoric to refer to U.S. forces, al-Sadr said the government should “protect the Iraqi people from the booby traps and American militias” and “demand the withdrawal of the occupier or a schedule for its withdrawal from our holy land.”
Okay then – El Cid comes to mind, that 1961 movie with Charlton Heston as El Cid (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar), driving the Moors from eleventh-century Spain, only sort of in reverse. It’s still dramatic.
But then al-Sadr did call off a “million-man march.” That’s a disappointment, dramatically. On the other hand, even that had its drama:
Meanwhile, security forces were reported to be blocking al-Sadr’s supporters from traveling to Baghdad from outlying areas to attend an anti-U.S. rally scheduled for Wednesday.
Matthew Yglesias sees the obvious irony:
Al-Sadr called for the protest to mark the fifth anniversary of the capture of Baghdad by US troops nearly a month after the war started, but many observers see it as a show of force in his confrontation with the government.
After all, in what kind of country would members of an opposition political party be allowed to attend a rally to protest the presence of 150,000 foreign soldiers on their soil? The cause of democracy requires that these people be shut down because of, I guess, something having to do with Iran and let’s just agree not to think too hard about the fact that our allies in the Iraqi government are also Iran’s main proxies in Iraq.
Can we keep this all straight? Middle East scholar Juan Cole suggests not:
I am always astounded at the combination of unrealistic optimism and foolish gullibility that marks political discourse on the Right in Washington. We were being told by Rich Lowry at the National Review that Sadr was on the ropes and on the verge of disbanding the Mahdi Army because the other political factions had turned on him, and that the others had had their militias join the regular security forces.
So let us get this straight. Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army fought off thousands of regular Iraqi army troops in Basra and Baghdad, and perhaps thousands of those troops deserted rather than fight. So the Mahdi Army won big and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki lost. Also the US military trainers of the Iraqi troops lost face.
So the next thing we hear is that al-Maliki is talking big and demanding that the Mahdi Army be dissolved. Usually you get to talk big if you win the military battle, not if you lose.
And Cole speaks of the audience getting fooled:
The US press went wild for this supposed report that Muqtada al-Sadr said he would dissolve his militia if Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani ordered it. Folks, he always says that when there is a controversy. (He said the same thing in spring, 2004). He says it because he knows it makes him look reasonable to the Shiite public. He says it because he knows that the grand ayatollahs are not going to touch the matter with a ten foot pole. They are not so foolish as to take responsibility for dissolving a militia that they had nothing to do with creating. And that is probably the real meaning of this CNN report that they ‘refused’ when asked. I doubt the grand ayatollahs in Najaf actively commanded Muqtada to keep his militia. They just declined to get drawn in.
Matthew Yglesias adds this:
That looks like Sadr’s checkmated Maliki to me. First Maliki tried to crush the Mahdi Army with force. He couldn’t. Then both Sadr and Maliki agreed on a political deal to kick the dispute upstairs to the religious authorities. Then the authorities backed Sadr.
… Sadr’s forces are endorsed by the local religious authorities and they’re the only ones untainted by collaboration with the extremely unpopular foreign occupiers. That’s the position you want to be in.
That’s drama! And then there were the Petraeus-Crocker hearings. Reuters – Petraeus to Halt Iraq Troop Withdrawals in July.
We must stay in this mix. Everyone may want the Hollywood ending, but there is no ending:
Petraeus gave them a cautious assessment. “We haven’t turned any corners; we haven’t seen any lights at the end of the tunnel. The champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. And the progress, while real, is fragile and is reversible,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Crocker echoed him – “These gains are fragile, and they are reversible.”
Okay, cut to John McCain, sort of playing Abe Simpson, Homer’s father, speaking that same morning:
But today it is possible to talk with real hope and optimism about the future of Iraq and the outcome of our efforts there. For while the job of bringing security to Iraq is not finished, as the recent fighting in Basra and elsewhere vividly demonstrated, we’re no longer staring into the abyss of defeat and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success.
He hasn’t been reading the screenplay. And Reuters reports this, an answer to everyone who is, unlike McCain, frustrated:
Crocker said he shared the frustration.
“If you decide … that we just don’t want to do this anymore, then we certainly owe ourselves a very serious discussion of ‘then what?’ What are the consequences? Because my experiences in the Middle East … frankly are that things can get really, really bad indeed,” he said.
Crocker said major changes in U.S. policy could allow al Qaeda to gain strength in Iraq and permit Iran to increase its influence. “I remain convinced that a major departure from our current engagement would bring failure,” he said.
Petraeus’ plan to stop troop withdrawals drew a rebuke from the Armed Services Committee chairman, Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin. He called it “an open-ended pause” that would represent “the next page in a war plan with no exit strategy.”
Levin demanded to know how many U.S. troops would be in Iraq at the end of 2008.
“Sir, I can’t give you an estimate,” said Petraeus.
No happy ending, no tragic ending – no ending. Reuters notes we now have 160,000 troops in Iraq, and under the plans announced last year, the Pentagon is pulling out five combat brigades, about 20,000 troops. If they come out, by mid-July, we’re back to the force level before the surge – that is, we’ll be just where we were. Petraeus says he’ll review things in July. That review will take forty-five days, so he’ll say more in September. When Bush leaves office in January 2009 we could still have more than 100,000 troops there, even if he starts reducing the numbers, which might not be possible. The next president can deal with it all.
You expected some sort of ending kind of thing? This is the real world. It’s not Hollywood.
Marc Ambinder has some interesting comments on the hearings here:
Gaming an end was the organizing principle of today’s hearings. Republicans recognized this as much as Democrats. Democrats grew frustrated that the strategy pursued by Petraeus and Crocker and run up the flagpole to the White House has no reasonable or conceivable end point; neither the general nor the ambassador seemed to be willing to give an opinion about just what constituted sufficient progress and, in importantly, what the intersection is between the finite resources and patience of the US and a realistic scenario for Iraq.
The key to a good screenplay is a realistic scenario. Sorry – that’s not possible:
The only thing Petraeus would say is that “local solutions” were the key, although he failed to explain, as Sen. John Kerry noted, how, if those solutions were not available today, how they’d be viable with even fewer troops – would more be required? This isn’t a Democratic talking point – Sen. Lugar asked the same question.
But, of course, there are no more troops to send.
And Ambinder notes that all three presidential candidates “stuck largely to their campaign stump speeches.” Sigh.
Ambinder did like Joe Biden’s questioning – that resulted in the admission from Crocker that our security interests would be better served if al Qaeda in Pakistan were eliminated more quickly than that quite small but nasty group of wannabes, al Qaeda in Iraq. Spencer Ackerman describes the drama in that:
Crocker, in an impossible political position – give the correct answer and humiliate the Bush administration; give the administration’s answer and look like a fool – dodged as much as he could. Then Biden forced him down. Crocker: “I would therefore pick Al Qaeda on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.”
Over at Hullabaloo “dday” saw an ending:
Every single argument that the Administration and their lapdogs like John McCain have made or are making break down after that answer. The Ambassador to Iraq just admitted that Iraq is not the central front in the war on terror. He just admitted that the potential for Al Qaeda to gain a beachhead in Iraq should the United States withdraw is miniscule compared to the already-established beachhead along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. He admitted that the global fight against terror is currently misdirected.
Whether the military is lowering casualties in Iraq or not, or whether political reconciliation is occurring or not, or whether Prime Minister Maliki won in Basra or Muqtada al-Sadr did – none of this is germane given the new information we just received here. We invaded Iraq to attack a group that did not attack us on 9-11, and we are continuing in Iraq and continuing to ignore the group that did attack us. So our policy is being held captive to developments inside Iraq while the terrorist threat that was supposed to be the impetus for this war and occupation in the first place goes on literally unabated.
Maybe that’s true. It’s just not satisfying. Nothing will change.
Ambinder notes even more in this mix:
Crocker and Petraeus denied the obvious: by giving money to the Sons of Iraq, they’re arming Sunnis. And paying them not to be violent. Will those payments breed dependence? Will they continue indefinitely?
Matthew Yglesias riffs on that:
Petraeus made reference just now to a report from several years ago which described the war in Anbar Province as “lost.” Now, obviously, he wants to say things are totally turned around. And certainly the situation has changed a great deal. But hasn’t it essentially changed because we substantially surrendered to the insurgency? It used to be that we were fighting the insurgents, trying to establish the authority of the Shiite government, and they were fighting back against us. Now we’re paying the insurgents, not trying to establish the authority of the Shiite government, and they’re not fighting against us anymore.
That’s certainly good news for American soldiers serving in Anbar, but that just goes to show the wisdom of trying to bring goals in line with reality, not that can-do spirit can produce victory everywhere.
Ambinder also notes even more in this mix, regarding Hillary Clinton:
Clinton’s tone was senatorial as were concerns: her main issue was the agreement the White House wants to sign with the Maliki government over the legal authority to keep troops in Baghdad, an agreement the Senate will not be privy to. …
Senator Clinton: Does the Administration plan to submit this agreement to our Congress?
Ambassador Crocker: At this point Senator, we do not anticipate that the agreements will have within them any elements that would require the advise-and-consent procedure. We intend to negotiate this as an executive agreement.
So Congress cannot even see a copy of the agreement that provides authorization to continue what we’ve been doing for over five years. That’s bold – amazing! Biden was outraged, as Ambinder saying you can see in his strong statement – Biden seems to think that Congressional permission is needed to make any long-term commitment to Iraq. Ambinder – “There were actually cheers in the hearing room after that one.”
It may make no difference, but it was dramatic.
As expected, Barack Obama called for a “diplomatic surge with Iran.” He was thinking in terms of endings. And he was a bit dry in what the “win this” folks have been proposing:
The problem I have is that if the definition of success is so high, no traces of Al Qaeda and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly effective Iraqi government, a democratic multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not the kind that we like, then that portends the possibility of us staying for twenty or thirty years.
The original screenwriters, if you will, were fools. Happy endings must be vaguely plausible.
John McCain of course provided the much needed comic relief, with his senior moments, as here, where he’s confused, again about that Muslim thing:
McCain: There are numerous threats to security in Iraq and the future of Iraq. Do you still view Al Qaeda in Iraq as a major threat?
Petraeus: It is still a major threat, though it is certainly not as major a threat as it was say 15 months ago.
McCain: Certainly not an obscure sect of the Shiites overall?
Petraeus: No, no sir.
McCain: Or Sunnis or anybody else then? Al Qaeda continues to try to assert themselves in Mosul, is that correct?
Petraeus: It is senator, as you saw on the chart. The area of operation of Al Qaeda has been greatly reduced in terms of controlling areas they controlled as little as a year and a half ago.
Kevin Drum says not to worry:
I suppose that eventually the press is bound to notice that McCain is seriously confused about the religious and political dynamics of Iraq and the greater Middle East, right? Maybe around December or so.
So, I’ve watched this video a number of times because I really wasn’t sure at first. But McCain did genuinely mix up Sunnis and Shi’a again. Saying that Al Qaeda was a Shi’a group before quickly correcting himself. Now, I know that there is a bit of gotcha going on here. But this man claims that his greatest qualification for the Presidency is that he understands foreign policy. But the differences between Sunni and Shi’a matter. They matter a lot! And this nasty habit of mixing it up just seriously needs to stop.
But if it stops we lose the comic relief!
And we need a clear villain – Iran! McCain doesn’t seem to care much about the details. Does anyone else?
See Yglesias again, here:
Petraeus and Crocker both seem committed to a “blame Iran for problems” approach to their hearings. In this context, it’s worth looking at this in the broader context of US-Iranian relations. Iran is adjacent to Iraq. The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran, and the U.S. government has branded Iran a member of the “axis of evil” and suggested that we are aiming to overthrow the Iranian government. Under the circumstances, it would obviously be hugely irresponsible of Iran to just let us consolidate an Iraqi regime that’s to our liking.
So the Iranians have their interests:
This is, simply put, a fight the Iranians can’t back down from. It’s the difference between us worrying about Iranian influence in Iraq (cause for concern) and us worrying about Iranian influence in Canada (panic!). The Iranians, in short, are never going to stop backing different Iraqi factions and trying to advance their interests there. Under the circumstances, there are basically three realistic options we could pursue. One would be to simply leave Iraq and acknowledge that, in practice, it’s difficult for any outside actor to manipulate Iraqi events precisely to the outside actor’s liking (just ask the United States). Another would be to attempt a rapprochement with Iran on a higher level, which would lay the groundwork for US-Iranian cooperation in Iraq. A third would be to combine the two.
But staying in Iraq in force while also maintaining a hostile relationship with Iran is just a recipe for frustration. As long as our big picture relationship with Iran is this bad, Iran is bound to some extent to be impeding whatever it is we’re trying to do in Iraq.
And Richard Lugar, that old Republican, also sees diplomacy is the only way to get some sort of ending:
None of our witnesses last week claimed that the task in Iraq was simple or that the outcome would likely fulfill the ideal of a pluralist democratic nation closely aligned with the United States. All suggested that spoiling activities and the fissures in Iraqi society could undermine even the most well-designed efforts by the United States. Unless the United States is able to convert progress made thus far into a sustainable political accommodation that supports our long-term national security objectives in Iraq, this progress will have limited meaning. We cannot assume that sustaining some level of progress is enough to achieve success, especially when we know that current American troop levels in Iraq have to be reduced and spoiling forces will be at work in Iraq. We need a strategy that anticipates a political end game and employs every plausible means to achieve it.
Late in the day you could see the former director of the NSA, retired Lieutenant General William Odom, telling Keith Olbermann that we’re now just making things worse:
The major media in this country have also, I think, failed to report a lot about what’s going in Iraq. True, there have been drops in violence, but they didn’t look at what the consequences of that were, and they didn’t look at the politics of that. If they had looked at the politics they’d see more fragmentation, a weaker government and a much more hopeless situation than a year ago.
How hopeless? See this video clip, Senator Menendez running down the statistics:
Prior to war 19% of children suffered malnutrition; today 28%
Last year 75% elementary-aged kids went to school; now 30%
Prior to war 50% lacked access to clean water; now 70%
Only 50 of 142 primary healthcare centers are open to public
Ambassador Crocker’s response – “Security conditions made it difficult to bring projects to closure in a timely fashion.”
And things will remain the same, as Fred Kaplan explains in Slate, with Stonewall Petraeus:
The way that Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker formulated the problem, cutting troops below the current level of 140,000 is not even a conceivable option. They laid out a Catch-22: If things in Iraq get worse, we can’t cut back, lest things get worse still; if things get better, we can’t cut back, lest we risk reversing all our gains.
… Both sides in this debate have a point. But the Bush-Petraeus-Crocker position – refusing even to threaten or contemplate withdrawals – amounts to a hope and crossed fingers, not a strategy. It lays out no clear course for how to translate tactical progress into strategic success.
And so it goes. Someone should send a copy of that screenwriting software to the White House.