Presented by Lapham's Quarterly and the Institute for the Future of the Book

Comments by

Joost Hiltermann

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President Bush's Address, paragraph 3

In presenting what in his view is the best remedy for the crisis in Iraq, Bush makes straight for the easiest diagnosis, invoking 9/11 and referring specifically to “outrageous acts of murder” by “Al Qaeda terrorists and Sunni insurgents” following the December 2005 Iraqi elections. This is, of course, a faulty diagnosis, perhaps deliberately so. It elides the critical errors the US made right before, during, and immediately after the war, the original sins of this ill-conceived enterprise, and puts the blame on one side in a growing sectarian conflict.

The historical record tells us differently: The violence that happened in 2006 was not the opposite of what had happened the previous year, as Bush claims, but a direct consequence of it, and the better elections to invoke are the first set, in January 2005. Lack of Iraqi consensus then about how to proceed led to elections from which the Sunni Arab community largely absented itself (calls for a delay to work things out were shoved aside by a Bush administration intent on meeting deadlines that served its own domestic agenda). On the basis of the newly elected, heavily skewed transitional national assembly, a constitution was drafted that institutionalized the Sunni Arabs’ exclusion from the new order and the future of Iraq. Big surprise that they didn’t go for it.

Through a last-minute compromise, their political leaders did agree to participate in the constitutional referendum in October 2005 and the second set of elections two months later. They fell a mere 80,000 votes in a single governorate (Ninewa/Mosul) short of defeating the constitution. Their participation in the subsequent elections ensured better national representation, but since there were no new provincial elections (which were held in January 2005), Sunni Arabs remained excluded from, or a marginal presence on, governorate councils, even in provinces in which they have the demographic majority. This is how they started the year 2006.

Meanwhile, the Shiite Islamist parties, especially SCIRI and its Badr militia, had taken over the Interior Ministry after the January 2005 elections and, under the useful cover of police uniforms and vehicles, set about taking revenge for sectarian attacks against Shiites launched by the Zarqawi group (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) in late 2003. The violence escalated markedly at that point (summer of 2005), not after the December 2005 elections.

To construe the past year as Bush has done is self-serving, of course, but also leads to the wrong recipe for rolling back the armed groups: These are fighting over real issues (not religious differences), and it is these issues that must be addressed most urgently. In the absence of any significant political initiative, a military effort to pacify Baghdad is bound to fail.

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President Bush's Address, paragraph 5

If the Bush administration benefited from the “thoughtful recommendations” of the Baker-Hamilton report, it certainly is showing no evidence of it. Aside from the ISG’s recommendation that its proposals be taken on wholesale rather than piecemeal, none of its key recommendations are reflected in Bush’s speech (most importantly perhaps, the idea that Iraq cannot be stabilized without some form of cooperation from Iran and Syria, nations that should therefore be engaged), and in proposing a surge in military deployment Bush is directly contradicting the ISG report.

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President Bush's Address, paragraph 7

“Eighty percent of Iraq’s sectarian violence occurs within 30 miles of the capital.” This may be true. But not all violence in Iraq is sectarian. The country has suffered from rampant lawlessness and criminality, in some areas more than in others, and in Basra there are serious conflicts, often violently expressed, between three Shiite groups (Fadhila, SCIRI and the Sadrists). The focus on Baghdad, though, is correct: If you can sort out Baghdad, you can then start sorting out the rest of the country. But again the approach should not be strictly military.

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President Bush's Address, paragraph 14

Here we come to what should have been the main thrust of Bush’s approach to Iraq but sounds instead more like a minor item on the agenda. And it is totally misdirected. To think that the Maliki government, which barely can tie its own shoes, is going to meet agreed benchmarks is to fantasize. It has neither the ability nor the will to reach across the table and come to a true national compact with all of Iraq’s political actors (including insurgents). The Kurds are quite content with the current situation (no one is bothering them up in Kurdistan, certainly not attacking them with chemical weapons) and the Shiites are not going to let the Americans cheat them out of this historic opportunity to rule an Arab country. Only a concerted international effort could bring these parties to the table and force them to compromise on the key issues that divide them. This Bush is evidently not prepared to do.

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President Bush's Address, paragraph 15

Another fanciful notion: No way is this Iraqi government, in the absence of a national compact amounting to an overall peace agreement, going to be able to assume full security responsibilities in all 18 governorates by November. As for the oil legislation, we have been receiving tantalizing titbits suggesting that an overall compromise may be within reach. But to state, bluntly, that the Iraqis “will pass legislation” — and legislation representing a true compromise acceptable to all major actors — is, I would venture, rather premature. The same goes for the assertion that the government will reform de-Baathification. Reform how? By chiseling at the edges of current legislation? That simply will not suffice to overcome the blunders of the past. And finally, concerning the constitution, it is fine and well to posit a fair process for considering amendments to the constitution, but the Kurds don’t want the constitution amended on key points (the current one serves their interests quite nicely) and through their more-than-two-thirds majority in three governorates (Erbil, Suleimaniyeh, and Dohuk) they could simply defeat the package of amendments in the referendum that is to follow. Add to this opposition to substantial amendments from some of the Shiite parties, and the whole notion that the constitution can be significantly changed, through a fair process or otherwise, goes out the window.

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President Bush's Address, paragraph 18

“Our military forces in Anbar are killing and capturing al Qaeda leaders, and they are protecting the local population.” Should one laugh at the audacity of the lie or cry over the state to which Anbar has been reduced by the combined efforts of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, other insurgent groups, and US forces fighting them? American troops cannot move ten yards without being attacked, and no citizen of Anbar would claim he or she is receiving effective protection from them. The sad truth is that Al-Qaeda in Iraq has become the strongest force in Anbar, funding and sometimes coordinating with other insurgent groups, such as the Islamic Army and Muhammad’s Army, as well as smaller secular and independent grouplets. Anyone needing protection has only one address to which they can go, whether they like it or not: the insurgents.

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President Bush's Address, paragraph 23

No doubt the people of the region want a future of peace and opportunity for their children, but they have been looking at Iraq for some time now and are making very clear that above everything they want foreign forces to leave. They know very well that foreign interventions in the Middle East over the past century have only brought more grief, compounding as they have the very serious problems of authoritarianism, inequality, economic dislocation, and poverty that exist. The US adventure in Iraq has roused deep anti-US sentiments in a region that suspects behind every American move a plan to grab more oil or promote Israel’s interests.

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President Bush's Address, entire page

If George Bush had a last opportunity to get it right on Iraq, he has just missed it. By shunning the Baker-Hamilton report which, for all its weaknesses, was by far the best plan on the table because at least it recognized the importance of the political dimension, and by pushing a military option that does not even enjoy the full support of his generals, he is giving the American public, and the world, a Hail Mary operation that will do little to stem the escalating violence, simply because it neglects to address the underlying issues that divide Iraqis, issues that form the very raison d’ĂȘtre of the insurgent groups and militias that are wreaking havoc in the streets of Baghdad and beyond.

Had he been both wise and courageous, he would have initiated a political process with key allies to bring together Iraq’s neighboring states, including Iran and Syria, in a joint effort to persuade Iraq’s divided communities to come to a new national compact (the one the constitution was meant to be). He would also, to repair some of America’s standing in the region and increase the effectiveness of US diplomatic efforts, have relaunched the peace process. Instead, we get nothing but a surge, a temporary projection of military might into Baghdad and Anbar, with no prospect whatsoever that this time around military solutions will be any more effective and long-lasting than earlier ones, all of which were dismal failures. Heaven help us all.