The events of the last few days have cast a much-needed spotlight on what may really be going on within the administration on Iraq, aside from the usual "victory" talk from the president.
As many people have noted, the long-awaited Baker-Hamilton commission report took a cautious position, but one that in many respects reflected the Democratic consensus of the last year or so that some sort of phased withdrawal needs to begin right away.
But a more interesting revelation came from the leaked NSC Hadley memo. And over at The American Prospect Online, Laura Rozen has a fascinating and somewhat alarming report about the actual intra-administration debate that memo reflected.
Two of the options under consideration, according to Rozen, are familiar: the "status quo plus" approach of redeploying troops from within Iraq to Baghdad to stabilize that area; and the "hunker down" approach of confining U.S. troops to bases, intensifying training operations, and gradually reducing our presence.
But the third option, which some commentators are calling "the 80% solution" (reflecting the percentage of the Iraqi population that is either Shi'a or Kurdish), is to "tilt to the Shi'a" and essentially abandon the Sunni minority to a bloody fate.
Here's how Rozen describes that option:
The "unleash the Shia" option would have the United States back a Shiite coalition that would include SCIRI leader Hakim and his Badr Brigades as the core of an Iraqi Army under the direct control of Prime Minister Maliki. Even as the United States sided with the Shia, Hadley's memo makes clear that the United States would at the same time press Maliki to distance himself from Sadr and his Mahdi army.
The idea, apparently, is to make U.S. support for letting the Shi'a settle scores with the Sunnis contingent on marginalizing Moqtada al-Sadr, presumably because he is so violently anti-American.
Maybe tilting to the "winning side" makes sense, if stabilization of Iraq, at any cost, is the best we can hope for. And Lord knows removing Sadr's paws from the levers of power would be a good thing, assuming he could truly be marginalized.
But let's not have any illusions about the alternative military-power base suggested by this option: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its Badr Corps militia. For one thing, the Badr Corps appears to have deployed its own "death squads" separate from Sadr's in the indiscriminate reprisals against Sunnis sparked by insurgent atrocities against Shi'a. But more importantly, SCIRI (which was actually created in Iran as an anti-Saddam exile group) is widely assumed to be honeycombed with Iranian intelligence operatives, and has done little or nothing to reduce the perception that it is Tehran's closest ally in Iraq.
Maybe this is the best we can do to create the impression that we are reaching out to "responsible" Shi'a Islamists. Still, deliberately empowering a pro-Iranian armed faction in the context of "unleashing" the Shi'a against the Sunnis would represent a remarkable devolution from all the talk of peace and national unity--much less making Iraq a role model for the Middle East--that the administration has repeated so very many times.
UPDATE: So guess who's coming to dinner at the White House next week? According to Saturday's New York Times, it's none other than Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI. Sounds like the 80% solution is indeed in play. --