I hope you’ve all been enjoying the many-houses-of-McCain wonderfulness as much as I have. It’s been truly entertaining stuff, as has the ravenous frenzy Obama has whipped up by not announcing his VP candidate yet.
As delightful as these stories have been, though, the all-consuming media coverage they’re getting is causing many to miss a couple relatively important happenings in Iraq.
First we have the news that the Iraqi government and the Bush administration are close to agreement on a timetable for withdrawal of American troops. According to the deal, troops will be out of Iraq’s cities by 2009 and out of the entire country by 2011. This is not particularly surprising news, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Bush administration to paint this as anything but what it is: a timetable for withdrawal. And that makes for increased political problems for the McCain campaign. Obama has already issued a statement saying he’s glad the Bush administration has finally come around to embracing his Iraq policy. This is the sort of argument that people aren’t going to be paying much attention to right now, but when Obama makes it at the convention and in particular at the debates, it’s going to be money in the bank. It’s also the sort of argument I love: true, important, and effective (in contrast to, say, the many-houses-of-McCain, which is true and effective, but not particularly important – though of course what it lacks in importance it more than makes up for in hilarity).
Beyond the political consequences, of course, the embrace of a timetable is an important policy shift for the Bush administration. Importantly, virtually nobody seems willing to disagree with it. The debate over Iraq’s troop withdrawal has not merely transitioned from “whether” to “how,” but from “how” to “how-to-phrase-it”: the Bush administration wishes to emphasize the importance of “conditions on the ground,” while the Democrats wish to emphasize the withdrawal itself. Either way, the Bush administration still supports withdrawal, and the Democrats still support allowing for adjustments depending on conditions on the ground. Everything else is spin and obfuscation.
The other important Iraq story is this New York Times report that Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated government has started to target the Sunni groups that recently joined forces with U.S. troops to target al-Qaeda in the so-called Anbar Awakening. If true, it would seem that Maliki is prepared to make a dangerous play for power. The reality of the Anbar Awakening, as well as the “surge” of American troops, was always that it served as a band-aid to mitigate the damage of the fundamental strategic blunder of the initial invasion. The power dynamics between Shi’a and Sunni remain the same, as does the impossibility of establishing democratic institutions and norms through military force. That’s not to say Iraq is necessarily doomed to chaos: the relevant parties might make decisions that lead to peace or that lead to war. It’s just that the United States is not one of those relevant parties. Americans get uncomfortable when that’s the case, as is demonstrated by the sound-and-fury that has been coming out of McCain’s mouth throughout the Georgia-Russia conflict. But in any number of areas there’s simply nothing we can do to help in any kind of direct way. We can either get used to that reality and adjust, or kick and scream as we refuse to accept it, ultimately only making things worse.