Sunday, August 26, 2007

Circling Wagons / Circling Vultures

A little flour was sprinkled into the Iraq mess this week and the plot got thicker. It seems Nouri al-Maliki's future is getting more and more uncertain. Senator Levin returned from his trip to the 'battlespace' and immediately called for Maliki's replacement.

President Bush then shocked the world by implying that his faith was a little shaken. Bush suggested that if the Iraqi people are unhappy, then they will replace him (that's the generous version). Then he doubled back the very next day saying, "He's a good guy- a good man!- with a tough job and I support him." (Colby King, of the Washington Post, likened the President's comments to "you're doing a heckuva job, Brownie.")

In addition, the recent National Intelligence Report was more than a little pessimistic about the current Iraqi government. And Charles Krauthammer, one of the most influential conservative commentators, also bashed him this week.

What happened? Just a year ago, President Bush was presenting Maliki to the world in the most encouraging terms: "he's the man for the job and I trust him."

What's changed?

Glenn Greenwald (bestselling author and columnist at has a theory. Greenwald, in a piece he published Friday, cited CNN in what he described as a "solid piece of reporting". CNN reported:

"A powerhouse Republican lobbying firm with close ties to the White House has begun a public campaign to undermine the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, CNN has confirmed. . . .

"A senior Bush administration official told CNN the White House is aware of the lobbying campaign by Barbour Griffith & Rogers because the firm is "blasting e-mails all over town" criticizing al-Maliki and promoting the firm's client, former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, as an alternative to the current Iraqi leader. . . ."

The focus of the Greenwald piece, and it's a brilliant one, was on Philip Zelikow, former adviser to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and senior adviser to the lobbying firm in question- specifically his appearing on ABC being critical of al-Maliki without disclosing BG&R's relationship to Allawi.

Zelikow disputed having any relationship, direct or indirect, with Allawi. His alibi, as it were, was solid but still smelled distinctly of fish.

Where this all gets really interesting though, is looking back at Allawi's relationship with the United States.

The relationship goes back to at least 1994 when the CIA was planning a coup to overthrow Saddam Hussein. According to a May 16th, 2003 column by David Ignatius in the Washington Post, British officials apparently suggested that the CIA contact Allawi for assistance in the coup. And the relationship with the U.S. has continued right up until today. As CNN's Michael Weir described him on Late Edition, "he's a stalwart for American support".

So what to make of all this?

I think I've teed myself up enough here...

With all of the recent and long-standing comparisons to Vietnam, one in particular jumps out at me. I seem to remember learning about a succession of leaders that we (the CIA mostly) installed and removed in South Vietnam in hopes of finding one who could save the day... we never did.

And while the war in Iraq is sufficiently different to call into question comparisons with Vietnam (particularly the President's comparison), I can't help but wonder if we are yet again failing to learn from our own mistakes.

David Patraeus is likely to report in two weeks that the surge is yielding positive results militarily (which is true) but the political progress has been less than promising (which is also true). And while everybody is fumbling around with a plethora of bad options, Republicans and Democrats seem to be taking the opportunity to go on an intellectual vacation.

I'm no expert, but I just can't see how replacing al-Maliki with anybody, especially a "stalwart of American support" (well qualified though he may be), is going to change the fundamentals in Iraq. Maliki may be a problem, but he is not the problem.

As NBC correspondent Richard Engel rightly observed this morning on Meet the Press, "we cant just move the chess pieces around, we've got to change the game."

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