An Under-Remarked Element of the Iraq Debate

From Harper’s, via Andrew Sullivan

“Number of Iraqis who receive regular payments from the U.S. government in exchange for not fighting:  91,600”

In all the recent discussion about the surge and the Anbar Awakening is the fact that we are literally paying many Iraqis not to fight against us. To put 91,600 in perspective, there are currently about 150,000 American troops in Iraq. The fact that there is a group of Iraqi’s equivalent to about 60 percent of the American presence in Iraq who aren’t fighting because we’re paying them not too seems to be an important element of why violence has decreased.

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The Press is Biased Against Who Now?

Barack Obama. At least, more of his media coverage is unfavorable than John McCain’s.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, where researchers have tracked network news content for two decades, found that ABC, NBC and CBS were tougher on Obama than on Republican John McCain during the first six weeks of the general-election campaign.

You read it right: tougher on the Democrat.

During the evening news, the majority of statements from reporters and anchors on all three networks are neutral, the center found. And when network news people ventured opinions in recent weeks, 28% of the statements were positive for Obama and 72% negative.

Network reporting also tilted against McCain, but far less dramatically, with 43% of the statements positive and 57% negative, according to the Washington-based media center.

Now, Obama has gotten a lot more airtime than John McCain, it just hasn’t been more favorable. In fact, since the end of the primaries, the trend has reversed. Obama used to get better coverage than McCain.

That was a reversal of the trend during the primaries, when the same researchers found that 64% of statements about Obama — new to the political spotlight — were positive, but just 43% of statements about McCain were positive.

Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan’s guests.

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McCain on the Awakening

As I briefly noted yesterday, John McCain is having some trouble with his Iraq messaging. All he wants to say is that everything good in Iraq is a result of his surgerific good judgement and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Yesterday, when asked about Obama’s views on recent progress on Iraq, McCain said Obama didn’t know what he was talking about, because he cited the Anbar Awakening as seperate from the surge.

Kate Couric: Senator McCain, Senator Obama says, while the increased number of US troops contributed to increased security in Iraq, he also credits the Sunni awakening and the Shiite government going after militias. And says that there might have been improved security even without the surge. What’s your response to that?

McCain: I don’t know how you respond to something that is as– such a false depiction of what actually happened. Colonel McFarlane [phonetic] was contacted by one of the major Sunni sheiks. Because of the surge we were able to go out and protect that sheik and others. And it began the Anbar awakening. I mean, that’s just a matter of history. Thanks to General Petraeus, our leadership, and the sacrifice of brave young Americans. I mean, to deny that their sacrifice didn’t make possible the success of the surge in Iraq, I think, does a great disservice to young men and women who are serving and have sacrificed.

Many people pointed out that this is transparently false, including the fine folks at Democracy Arsenal.

One problem.  The surge wasn’t even announced until a few months after the Anbar Awakening.  Via Spencer Ackerman, here is Colonel MacFarland explaining the Anbar Awakening to Pam Hess of UPI, on September 29 2006.  That would be almost four months before the President even announced the surge.  Petraeus wasn’t even in Iraq yet.

With respect to the violence between the Sunnis and the al Qaeda — actually, I would disagree with the assessment that the al Qaeda have the upper hand. That was true earlier this year when some of the sheikhs began to step forward and some of the insurgent groups began to fight against al Qaeda. The insurgent groups, the nationalist groups, were pretty well beaten by al Qaeda.

This is a different phenomena that’s going on right now. I think that it’s not so much the insurgent groups that are fighting al Qaeda, it’s the — well, it used to be the fence-sitters, the tribal leaders, are stepping forward and cooperating with the Iraqi security forces against al Qaeda, and it’s had a very different result. I think al Qaeda has been pushed up against the ropes by this, and now they’re finding themselves trapped between the coalition and ISF on the one side, and the people on the other.

And here is the NY Times talking about the Anbar Awakening back in March 2007.

The formation of the group in September shocked many Sunni Arabs. It was the most public stand anyone in Anbar had taken against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which was founded by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

And here is Colin Kahl in Foreign Affairs

The Awakening began in Anbar Province more than a year before the surge and took off in the summer and fall of 2006 in Ramadi and elsewhere, long before extra U.S. forces started flowing into Iraq in February and March of 2007. Throughout the war, enemy-of-my-enemy logic has driven Sunni decision-making. The Sunnis have seen three “occupiers” as threats: the United States, the Shiites (and their presumed Iranian patrons), and the foreigners and extremists in AQI. Crucial to the Awakening was the reordering of these threats.

But perhaps the most damning assessment of what happened with the Anbar Awakening is from General MacFarland himself.

Why We Succeeded

Clearly, a combination of factors, some of which we may not yet fully understand, contributed to this pivital success. As mentioned before, the enemy overplayed its hand and the people were tired of Al Qaeda. A series of assasinations had elevated younger, more aggressive tribal leaders to positions of influence. A growing concern that the U.S. would leave Iraq and leave the Sunnis defenseless against Al Qaeda and Iranian-supported militias made those younger leaders open to our overtures. Our willingness to adapt our plan based on the advice of the sheiks, our staunch and timely support for them in times of danger and need, and our ability to deliver on our promises convinced them that they could do business with us…

Democracy Arsenal comments that “if you are going to cite a military officer in a political debate, the least you can do is actually make sure you are citing his argument correctly.” However, to me, the meaning of MacFarland’s comments really undercut John McCain.

Why? Because right now John McCain is completely invested in the notion that the surge alone made progress in Iraq possible. Here’s a post from McCain’s blog that, incredibly, accuses Obama of not respecting the troops because he cites things like the Awakening as contributing to success in Iraq.

Is the surge responsible for the dramatic decline in violence in Iraq? Are U.S. troops responsible for the success of the Awakening movement? Are U.S. forces and our Iraqi allies responsible for marginalizing the Shiite militias? Ask Barack Obama or his surrogates, and the answer you’re likely to hear is ‘no.’

As Barack Obama told Terry Moran in explaining his decision to oppose the surge:

“[I] did not anticipate, and I think that this is a fair characterization, the convergence of not only the surge but the Sunni awakening in which a whole host of Sunni tribal leaders decided that they had had enough with Al Qaeda, in the Shii’a community the militias standing down to some degrees. So what you had is a combination of political factors inside of Iraq that then came right at the same time as terrific work by our troops. Had those political factors not occurred, I think that my assessment would have been correct.”

Leave aside the fact that Obama seems to agree with John McCain that the Awakening coincided with the surge, his point is that the success is largely a result of these other “political factors.” That is, it wasn’t U.S. forces that nurtured the Awakening, knocked down the Shiite militias, and brought stability to Iraq, but mysterious and unforeseeable forces beyond our control. It is a transparent dodge for Obama’s own poor judgment in opposing a strategy that has put us on a path to outright victory in Iraq–an outcome Democrats have long said was impossible.The most unseemly aspect of this spin, however, is the necessity of stripping U.S. forces, our Iraqi allies, and American commanders on the ground of any credit in bringing about the massive improvement in Iraqi security, because if they are credited, then the Democrats must also credit John McCain.

The man who helped start the Awakening directly contradicts that claptrap. He says that the Awakening started for two reasons. One, because Al Qaeda in Iraq alienated the local population and turned Sunnis against them. And two, because it looked like the US might leave Iraq. That is exactly what Obama has been saying for some time now. Obama opposed the surge and supported a phased withdrawal because he wanted to put political pressure on the Iraqis, which is exactly what MacFarland said happened. The fear of the US leaving led to the Awakening, which even David Petraeus himself gave the Awakening primary credit for reducing the violence in Iraq.

1) Before you left for Baghdad on this tour, you told Congress there is no military victory in Iraq and that what is needed is a political solution. What is the strongest indication on the ground that the surge is creating the environment needed to achieve a political solution?

There is no question that all of us — Iraqi leaders, as well as Coalition leaders — are frustrated with the slow pace of political solutions. These solutions include fundamental issues that underpin the allocation of resources and power within the Iraqi political state after years of authoritarian rule. It takes time to resolve these issues, however, just as it took the U.S. time to resolve fundamental issues like civil rights (which is similar to de-Ba’athification) or states rights (which is similar to provincial powers).

Nevertheless, there have been some indications of progress. First, we have seen on-the-ground reconciliation among groups that were opposed to the government. The Anbar Awakening is the most prominent, where Sunni Arabs have turned against Al Qaeda and are now being integrated into Iraqi Security Forces. This effort has spread to other areas, as well, such as Baqubah and in locations such as Abu Gharib, Ghaziliyah, and Ameriyah in Baghdad, where local groups have reconciled with the government and the government is in the process of incorporating them into legitimate security organizations.

In short, John McCain doesn’t have a leg to stand on here.

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McCain, Obama and the Surge

Perhaps John McCain’s biggest strength this election has been his advocacy of the surge in Iraq. McCain’s story is now that the surge had never happened we would have “lost in Iraq.” Furthermore, McCain claims that Obama has been denying the success of the surge.

“Our troops will come home with honor. And we won’t be defeated. And there won’t be chaos in the region. There won’t be increased Iranian influence in the region. And it will have a bearing on what happens in Afghanistan, as well as the entire region of the world. And I’m proud of what they’ve done. And to deny their success — I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of what happened. The American people will make a judgment.”

McCain has also extended that argument and explicitly argued that “I had the courage and the judgment to say that I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. It seems to me that Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.”

The second attack is just crazy. It’s basically arguing that Obama is a traitor who is only interested in political power, but beyond the sheer ugliness of it, it is just wrong. Obama did argue for a different strategy in Iraq in early 2007. But so did a lot of other people. To say Obama wanted to lose the war is basically to say that people like James Baker, Jim Hamilton, Lawrence Eagleburger, William Perry and the rest of the Iraq Study Group all wanted to lose. It’s just not a credible story.

Furthermore, while the increased troops in Iraq have clearly helped the security situation, it really is debatable whether the surge deserves most of the credit for the reduction in violence. McCain certainly thinks so, but Obama doesn’t.

In an interview with ABC’s Terry Moran, Obama said that he “did not anticipate, and I think that this is a fair characterization, the convergence of not only the surge but the Sunni awakening in which a whole host of Sunni tribal leaders decided that they had had enough with Al Qaeda, in the Shii’a community the militias standing down to some degrees. So what you had is a combination of political factors inside of Iraq that then came right at the same time as terrific work by our troops. Had those political factors not occurred, I think that my assessment would have been correct.”

Obama has a real point here. Additional US troops have definitely been a factor, but have they been the key factor? Nouri al-Maliki doesn’t think so.

SPIEGEL: In your opinion, which factor has contributed most to bringing calm to the situation in the country?

Maliki: There are many factors, but I see them in the following order. First, there is the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve in central Iraq. This has enabled us, above all, to pull the plug on al-Qaida. Second, there is the progress being made by our security forces. Third, there is the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias. Finally, of course, there is the economic recovery.

Also, while many on the right argue that the Anbar Awakening and Sadr ceasefire are the results of the surge, that line of argument doesn’t really really hold up. Kevin Drum has the timeline:

  • February 2006: Muqtada al-Sadr orders an end to execution-style killings by Mahdi Army death squads.
  • August 2006: Sadr announces a broad ceasefire, which he has maintained ever since.
  • September 2006: The Sunni Awakening begins. Tribal leaders, first in Anbar and later in other provinces, start fighting back against al-Qaeda insurgents.
  • March 2007: The surge begins.

Spencer Ackerman and Matt Yglesias further point why this line is bullshit.

Spencer Ackerman asks the press corps to recognize that “this is completely fucking wrong” and points to then-Colonel, now-General Sean MacFarland explaining the origins of the awakening to UPI’s Pam Hess on September 29, 2006. That was a bit over a month before the midterm elections. The surge wasn’t announced until after the elections and wasn’t actually implemented until long after MacFarland gave the interview. And presumably the events he was describing happened before the interview itself.

This specific timing issue aside, we can see here the larger point that McCain doesn’t actually seem to know what the surge was. But the surge troops were overwhelmingly sent to increase the level of manpower in Baghdad (i.e., not where the Anbar Awakening happened) and almost certainly (along with a tactical shift to more of a population protection mission) deserves credit for reducing the bloodshed in Baghdad by stabilizing the borders between now-segregated neighborhoods. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that it had nothing to do what happened in Anbar, but it wasn’t a major factor, and certainly didn’t make anything happen in September 2006. I note that this isn’t the first time the right has had occasion to appeal to Michael Dummett’s theory of backward causation in their discussion of Iraq.

McCain really is in a tough spot here. He has to run on the surge, whatever the reality is. So, while the surge helped, the improvement in the security situation in Iraq has come from a lot of other things too. McCain can’t seem to acknowledge that, but it’s awfully rich to attack Obama for pointing out reality.

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Why is this Suprising?

Watching Hardball tonight, it’s a little remarkable to me that the lead story is that Obama said that as Commander in Chief he would be in charge of the military.

Chris Matthews, Andrea Mitchell and Howard Fineman are all acting like they’re stunned that Obama would assert civilian control over the military and not blindly follow what the Generals want to do. Obama makes a pretty mundane point about how the job of a president is different from that of a general and how a president has to look at the bigger picture and set priorities, and the press acts like this is radically new.

Part of this is the damage that McCain and Bush have done by basically abdicating their Iraq policy to the “commanders on the ground.” Bush and McCain have always said, as a dodge to avoid taking political responsiblity, that they will bring troops home when “commanders on the ground” say they should come home. That is dangerous in that it undermines the idea that civilian leaders set military policy and strategy, leaving it to the generals to implement the policies set by the civilian leaders.

The fact that MSNBC finds it newsworthy that Obama would possibly do something other than exactly what the generals want is disturbing. Imagine the shock that this idea would elicit after another 8 years of this attidute emanating from the White House.

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Is McCain Becoming John Kerry?

One thing that has struck me recently is the degree to which John McCain’s campaign seems to be falling into some of the same traps that ensnared John Kerry in 2004.

On the surface, it seems remarkable that McCain could become Kerry. For one, he’s a Republican. Democrats are unwilling to attack his military service like Republicans did to Kerry. (And don’t get me started on Wes Clark’s comments. Even if you do read it as an attack, which I don’t, it was clearly orders of magnitude less that Republicans wearing purple heart bandaids to questions whether Kerry was wounded enough.) Secondly, McCain is clearly a better politician than Kerry. Nonetheless, McCain really does seem to be falling into some Kerry-esque traps.

To begin with, McCain has placed an awful lot of emphasis on his military service. One thing that Kerry showed is that while voters may like military service, they aren’t likely to vote on it. Talking too much about what happened 35 years ago is a surefire way to lose an election today.

The second area where the McCain campaign seems to be emulating the Kerry camp is on Iraq. On the surface that idea seems absurd. But it isn’t. One of Kerry’s biggest problems on Iraq was that he was stuck in the past. He spent the campaign trying to relitigate the decision to go to war, instead of focusing on the way forward. Kerry never really distinguished himself from Bush on the way forward in Iraq. Instead, Kerry was seen as second guessing the decision to go to war without offering a new way forward.

McCain is doing the same thing. He is betting his entire campaign on relitigating the surge. He doesn’t have a way forward.  When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed with Barack Obama on the way forward in Iraq, McCain responed by going back to the surge. Voters aren’t interested in the past. They are interested in the future. Obama is offering a clear way forward and out of Iraq. McCain won’t say anything about it, except that troops will come home at some point in the future.

Also, like Kerry, McCain hasn’t created any sharp contrasts on other foreign policy issues. He tried on the diplomacy issue, but never got any real traction with it. He just adopted Obama’s position going forward on Afghanistan. If McCain fights the election on the past he will lose, just like Kerry did. McCain is in a tough situation. He doesn’t have a strong position to articulate going forward. He really needs to find one, or he’ll be stuck in the same trap Kerry was stuck in. And we all know how that turns out.

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Turns Out, Maliki Said It Afterall

So, after the Maliki government, through the occupation authority, tried to claim “mistranslation” on his Obama/timeline comments, it turns out they were full of shit. Not only was the translator for the interview Maliki’s, but the New York Times has gotten the audio and confirmed Maliki’s comments.

“Unfortunately, Der Spiegel was not accurate,” Mr. Dabbagh said Sunday by telephone. “I have the recording of the voice of Mr. Maliki. We even listened to the translation.”

But the interpreter for the interview works for Mr. Maliki’s office, not the magazine. And in an audio recording of Mr. Maliki’s interview that Der Spiegel provided to The New York Times, Mr. Maliki seemed to state a clear affinity for Mr. Obama’s position, bringing it up on his own in an answer to a general question on troop presence.

The following is a direct translation from the Arabic of Mr. Maliki’s comments by The Times: “Obama’s remarks that — if he takes office — in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq.”

He continued: “Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq.”

So, just to be clear. Comment as originally reported in Der Spiegel and as translated by Maliki’s guy:

U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.

Comment as translated by the Times:

“Obama’s remarks that — if he takes office — in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq.”

Not exactly the same, but the ideas are. Unsurprisingly, both the White House and McCain’s camp are full of shit on this. McCain put all of his eggs in the mistranslation/misunderstanding basket.

In an interview, Scheunemann dismissed the idea that events abroad had shifted the debate in ways that favor Obama. He also said McCain stood be his 2004 remarks, and that “if the sovereign Iraqi government wants our troops out, our troops will leave. They have not said that.”

Maliki’s comments to der Spiegel were only “inartful,” Scheunemann said.

“If they’re going to go after inartful statements, we can have that debate,” he quipped, noting Obama’s past equivocations on such issues as the Washington, D.C., gun ban and status of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.

This is now a long way from “inartful statements.” Maliki brought Obama up and said that “he who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq.” That doesn’t seem inartful, unless your definition of inartful is “saying something that hurts us.” That seems like Maliki knew what he was doing and said it anyways.

A White House spokesman, quoted in the Times piece, claimed that

Scott M. Stanzel, a White House spokesman with President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., said that embassy officials explained to the Iraqis how the interview in Der Spiegel was being interpreted, given that it came just a day after the two governments announced an agreement over American troops.

“The Iraqis were not aware and wanted to correct it,” he said.

That bullshit spin is directly contradicted by an AP article from yesterday

Confusion over the Iraqi prime minister’s seeming endorsement of Barack Obama’s troop withdrawal plan is part of Baghdad’s strategy to play U.S. politics for the best deal possible over America’s military mission.

The goal is not necessarily to push out the Americans quickly, but instead give Iraqis a major voice in how long U.S. troops stay and what they will do while still there.

It also is designed to refurbish the nationalist credentials of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who owes his political survival to the steadfast support of President Bush. Now, an increasingly confident Iraqi government seems to be undermining long-standing White House policies on Iraq.

. . .

“Let’s squeeze them,” al-Maliki told his advisers, who related the conversation to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The squeeze came July 7, when al-Maliki announced in Abu Dhabi that Iraq wanted the base deal to include some kind of timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. The prime minister also proposed a short-term interim memorandum of agreement rather than the more formal status of forces agreement the two sides had been negotiating.

Hmmmm . . . It seems Maliki knows exactly what he is doing. Contrary to any idiot who thinks this thing may “help McCain” (?!?!?!?!?!), it sure seems like Maliki has just given Barack Obama a gigantic helping hand.

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