Who’s in the best position to play a constructive role in Iraq?
In his patronizing, familiar style, President Bush yesterday said he’d need to have a “heart-to-heart” with his “friend,” Prime Minister Maliki, if the latter continues to insist that Iran is playing a constructive role in Iraq. Then, to drive his message home, Bush switched from friendly to aggressive by saying, “Now, is he [Maliki] trying to get Iran to play a more constructive role? I presume he is. But that doesn’t – what my question is – well, my message to him is, is that when we catch you playing a non-constructive role there will be a price to pay.” Bush staffers were then forced to untangle Bush’s ambiguous syntax by saying that it was Iran — not Maliki — that will pay the price. Vice President Cheney has already volunteered that that price could include airstrikes against suspected training camps in Iran run by the Quds force.
With a casus belli such as “catching a truckload of fighters or weapons crossing into Iraq from Iran,” the long-feared war against Iran now seems unlikely to start with a shock-and-awe strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Instead, a series of “incidents” spread out over a period of months might escalate into a conflict from which neither side can back down. If this happens, I would argue that it reflects a Cheney-inspired political strategy for circumnavigating high level dissent inside the Pentagon.
For some time, rumors have been circulating in Washington that a significant number of generals would resign rather than support military action against Iran. Yet in the scenario I describe, it would only be after the fact (and too late for anyone to preemptively threaten resignation) before everyone agreed that the threshold of war had already been crossed. The window of opportunity for a principled rebellion is rapidly closing.
Meanwhile, the White House’s more immediate preoccupation seems to be whether it’s going to continue treating Maliki as a friend or turn him into a foe.
If and when Maliki has this promised/threatened heart-to-heart with the president, he might consider asking Bush how Iraqis should interpret the following two contrasting images.
To Iran’s west we see an American-led reconstruction process in Iraq that after four years has yielded meager results. Oil production remains below pre-war levels, electricity supply in Baghdad is under a third of what it was, unemployment is around 50%, and 70% of Iraqis lack adequate water supplies. Until quite recently, the U.S. was characterizing “terrorism” — not Iran — as the primary obstacle to Iraq’s progress.
To the east of Iran, Herat (Afghanistan’s western-most city) is now being hailed as a demonstration of “the positive influence of Iran” — those being the words of Mohammed Rafiq Shahir, president of Herat’s Council of Professionals. Since 2001, “Herat has attracted $350 million in private investment for industry – more than any other Afghan city, including Kabul, which is some 10 times larger. In total, 250 medium- and large-scale factories have been built.” The driving force behind this economic boom has been Iran. It has built a highway to the nearby border and it has hooked Herat into the Iranian power grid.
No wonder that — unlike Bush — Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, views his Persian neighbors positively. At the same time, Nuri al-Maliki might well look forward to the day that Iraq is able to purchase cheap electricity from nuclear-powered Iranian power stations.
At the end of the day, what should be more important? Having friendly relations with your immediate neighbors or pleasing a distant, unpredictable and unreliable superpower?