Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

14 February 2008

Iraq and November

With apologies to Wisconsin and Hawaii, we now have a three-week recess before Ohio’s and Texas’ crucial contests on March 4.  We can think about something besides the horse race.

As David Brooks opined on the Lehrer News Hour recently, real events—not promises, programs, platforms or politics—will decide the race between Senators Clinton and Obama. Even if that prediction is wrong, events are almost certain to decide the contest with John McCain in the fall.

While we were all watching the primaries, events in Iraq began to change profoundly. It is now possible to imagine a benign or even favorable outcome of our sacrifice there.

Since the Sunni “awakening” that preceded our “surge,” Al Qaeda in Iraq has been on the run. With the Sunni sheiks on board, all three major Iraqi ethnic groups—Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish—now hate Al Qaeda. And all three have ample reason.

To paraphrase von Clausewitz, insurgencies are local politics by violent means. They cannot exist without sanctuary and logistical support from the people. Al Qaeda in Iraq is losing that support and therefore its battle for survival. Even our generals are starting to say so, despite their understandable desire to distance themselves as far as possible from That Idiot Rumsfeld’s moronic optimism.

But the most profound change happened yesterday. The Iraqi legislative logjam broke, and results came pouring out.

By a single vote, the Iraqi Parliament passed a package of measures including laws for revenue sharing, federalism, and provincial elections. The revenue-sharing law just temporizes; Parliament will have to re-negotiate it in a year. But the federalism and election laws have the potential to remake Iraqi society for the better.

For some time, Joe Biden, other knowledgeable folk, and even I have been arguing that partitioning is the only path to Iraq’s salvation. The new federalism law is a giant positive step toward “soft” partitioning.

Even more important are the provincial elections, now scheduled for October. Five months ago, I argued that Iraqi provincial elections and reductions in our own casualty rate are the only true “benchmarks for success” in Iraq. Provincial elections can remake Iraqi society from the grass roots up. (This benchmark of success of course depends on the outcome of the elections, which may take some months to evaluate.) Reductions in our casualty rate not only keep support here at home from evaporating entirely; they suggest that Iraqis support our presence, too.

So what does this mean for our presidential election? Plenty. Despite John McCain’s over-the-top invitation to stay in Iraq for “100 years,” people know he is a straight shooter. When he points—as he will—to discernible military and political progress in Iraq, people will listen. His persona as war hero with legendary physical and moral courage won’t hurt his message.

Perhaps concern with our ailing economy will overwhelm Iraq as a general-election issue. But don’t bet our party's future on it.  Counting on Iraq not being an important factor in the fall is whistling past the graveyard.

If (as seems likely) positive changes in Iraq continue, both Clinton and Obama will have to “pivot” to a position more favorable to our enterprise there. They will have to do so some time between now and the general election campaign.

When, how, and how gracefully each pivots may determine who becomes the Democratic nominee.  Grace and good timing in pivoting also will influence, if not determine, who becomes president. Iraq’s provincial elections will come in October, right in the heat of our presidential campaign.

As usual, my money is on Obama. Not only is he smarter than Clinton, with far better judgment in foreign affairs. He also understands, as Clinton does not, that real change in any society comes up from the bottom, not down from the top.

Obama promises real change here at home by inspiring a “movement” that brings new voters and new centrist political forces into play. Just so, October’s provincial elections promise to remake Iraqi society from the bottom up.

So far, Iraq’s elections came too early. They arrived in the midst of a foreign invasion, an insurgency, rampant violence, political and social turmoil, and a then-brief respite from three decades of Stalinist tyranny. By October, Iraqis will have had five and one-half years to assess their situation, their neighbors, their leaders, their principles, and their future. They are now—and only now—in a position to build lasting political institutions.

Senator Obama understands this. When, how and how well he breaks the news to a party and a public bone tired of war will test his ability to serve as president.


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