Tuesday, March 25, 2008

"Bush's War" on PBS

I just caught part two of the PBS Frontline documentary "Bush's War," produced by Michael Kirk. It's very well done. When I heard Kirk speak at Columbia's journalism school this fall, he emphasized that detailed chronologies were the basis for his films. A solid time line, he said, was his script. This method seemed to me to pay dividends in "Bush's War." So, of course, who remembers exactly which day (or even month) Jay Garner was appointed "viceroy" of Iraq, or when L. Paul Bremmer replaced him? But what I found startling was how compressed certain events were in time. For example, Jay Garner received notice of Bremmer's appointment the first day he actually arrived in Baghdad. Just as he was looking for a functioning toilet in one of Saddam's palaces! Or that within days of arriving in Iraq, Bremmer had disbanded the Iraqi army, not after so much as a photo-op tour of the country.

In his talk at Columbia, Kirk cast himself as a kind of know-nothing interviewer. The guy isn't trying to outsmart his subjects. In fact, he comes off as somewhat amateurish. But he does stick to a policy of not allowing interviewees to set ground rules. That was evident in his handling of Bremmer (and Ahmed Chalabi for that matter). So it turns out Bremmer doesn't remember a meeting that Jay Garner describes in which Garner, and someone from the CIA called "Charlie" confronted Bremmer over then Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith's draconian debathification order. Charlie tells Bremmer that 30,000-50,000 people, closer to 50,000 actually, are about to lose their jobs, their place in the new society. In the documentary, Bremmer seems to panic, he can't remember the meeting, but says the number he heard was 20,000.

Much in the film is eerie in light of current events. New York Times reporter John Burns, who was in Iraq from before the invasion until last summer, in the interview, seemingly reclining on a pillow, notes dryly, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is the kind of man, if he sat on your local school board, you would be worried about him being appointed principal of a high school. Now he's running a country of 30 million. Like Putin, Bush looked him in the eye to see what he's all about. Now Maliki's in Basra, confronting the Sadrists with what seems to be the full force of the Iraqi Army. The Bush people are calling it "courageous," while the British are standing pat at the airport. From the documentary, it seems such an operation was very nearly set in motion many times in the war's early stages. I just hope Maliki knows what he's doing; that John Burns has him wrong.

11 comments:

Amos said...

Noah,

I haven't been following political developments inside Iraq recently. In part, this is because American press coverage of Iraq seems to have decreased significantly in the last few months. We used to hear about Maliki every day; now, it seems to me at least, we hear more often about the "Awakening Councils" than about members of the Iraqi government. I say all this as a preamble to my question: do we know what exactly it is that the U.S. wants Maliki to be doing?

As countless commentators have noted, what we saw in Basra is probably a good preview of what we will see as more American troops withdraw. I do not mean something as vague as "civil war"; what we will see, rather, is the disunity of the Iraqi Shi'i "community." The U.S. has, sort of, picked its militias, just as the Iranians have theirs. The local actors, in the meantime, are interested in expanding their economic and political control neighborhood by neighborhood, in a manner not dissimilar to organized crime groups.

Thus, if what the U.S. wants Maliki to be doing is to create a stable, unified Iraq, they would indeed be betting on the wrong man. In fact, there is no figure capable of this. My sense at this point is that the U.S. would be better advised (if they want to advance their interests) to align themselves with forces best able to check Iranian influence inside Iraq - and perhaps Maliki is it. Inevitably, the backing of competing factions by these two outside powers will come at the expense of Iraqi civilians. Our Lebanese friends know this story all too well.

ariel said...

There is something patently ridiculous about a superpower like the US turning a large country upside down and inside out in order to have an arena in which to stage a proxy war against a much smaller and far less powerful rival such as Iran. If Amos' analysis is right, and this is in fact what's happening, the situation is far more absurd than Vietnam, in which the ultimate target, at least in theory, was actually a powerful state. It's hard to imagine something more morally reckless than this.

Nobody said...

Bremmer was occasionally reported as having several books in his office in Baghdad on the history of American occupations of Germany and Japan. In one interview he was speaking in this sense. He apparently saw the post war occupation of Germany as a blueprint for Iraq. So some of the decisions such as debaathification campaign were copy pasted from the earlier American experience in nation buiding.

Thus, if what the U.S. wants Maliki to be doing is to create a stable, unified Iraq, they would indeed be betting on the wrong man. In fact, there is no figure capable of this. My sense at this point is that the U.S. would be better advised (if they want to advance their interests) to align themselves with forces best able to check Iranian influence inside Iraq - and perhaps Maliki is it.

Maliki is an Iraqi choice, whether he is really that pro Iranian or not, and in this sense the US can only go with the flow. It cannot impose its own candidate on these people. Never mind that the US may soon start leaving. There is no time left for experimenting with another prime minister or a different political system. If the current system can survive, then the mission is accomplished. If it's not - there is very little anybody can do about it anymore.

Nobody said...

ariel said...

There is something patently ridiculous about a superpower like the US turning a large country upside down and inside out in order to have an arena in which to stage a proxy war against a much smaller and far less powerful rival such as Iran. If Amos' analysis is right, and this is in fact what's happening,


i am not sure that this is what Amos is saying

Amos said...

Ariel,

Nobody is right: I wasn't saying that the intention of the U.S. was to turn Iraq into an anarchic wasteland where it would be able to wage a proxy war against Iran. That would indeed by ridiculous. The truth is that the U.S. seems to have miscalculated how regime change in Iraq would dramatically shift the standing of the regional powers and bring Iran into a position to strive for hegemony in the Gulf. The impending proxy war is an unfortunate result of this miscalculation, and it will intensify as U.S. troops withdraw, since the Saudis, Jordan, and the smaller Gulf states will all be compelled to counter Iranian influence in the region.

There are now several good books on the American decision to invade Iraq, none of which I have read. Here are some of them (thanks to J. for this list):

Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, America Unbound
James Fallows, Blind Into Baghdad
James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans
George Packer, The Assassin's Gate
Ron Suskind, One Percent Doctrine
Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack

ariel said...

I know that Amos didn't mean that the US went into Iraq with the intention of engaging Iran in a proxy, I was just commenting on the absurdity of that result. Turning to American politics, the recent turn of events could pose serious election problems for McCain and benefit the Democratic candidate correspondingly if the cease fire with Sadr breaks down, and we start seeing daily headlines of deaths in the dozens and hundreds. I wonder if Sadr and Iran are considering these possibilities. Presumably a Democratic victory and American withdrawl is to their advantage. I'm assuming that Maliki can't survive without US forces, but I'm not well enough informed to be certain.

Amos said...

You're right on about that. McCain has staked a lot on the success of the surge. If it proves to be illusory and U.S. casualties begin mounting again at the rates we saw during the heyday of the Sunni-led insurgency, Americans won't be terribly interested in arguments for a prolonged presence in Iraq. This would surely benefit the candidacy of Obama. I have to wonder, however, whether he would really be able to withdraw U.S. troops if he were elected. I am not talking about logistics about the interests of America and its Arab allies in the Middle East being imperiled by Iran.

Nobody said...

By the way there was this article in Time published in December last year. I am not sure about how correct it is. It's not clear who is fighting who because some reports say that al-Maliki has issued an ultimatum to all militias in Basra.

Nobody said...

The article was actually published in August, not December

Amos said...

Yah, I guess he was right to alert people to the problems in Basra. As far as I understand, the fighting right now is between government troops and Badr militiamen on one hand and the Sadrists on the other.

The Badr Organization is the militia of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (known in English by its acronym SIIC, formerly SCIRI = Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). SIIC, a part of the United Iraqi Alliance (largest party in the Iraqi Council of Representatives), is headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.

I am not sure it is entirely accurate to say that it's about the pro-Iranian Sadrists fighting the pro-US Badr Organization. It might make more sense to view this as a local conflict for control on the ground, although it is a different party altogether, Hizb-al-Fadhila, which holds the governorship of Basra province. So far, it seems to have stayed out of the fighting, but in the past, it has run up against SIIC and the Iraqi federal government. The former's Basra branch challenged the Fadhila governor, ousting him in April 2007; as far as I know, this ouster is still under review by the Constitutional Court, even though it was ratified by PM Nuri al-Maliki. On the other hand, Fadhila, though it owes its ideological roots to the deceased Sadr pere, is a rival of the Sadr party.

Nobody said...

you seem to have a good grasp of the intra Shi'ite politics in Iraq. I would suggest that you offer your services as an adviser to al-Maliki or some other Shi'ite politician since on their own they appear to be no longer knowing who is who among them.