Barack’s “My Plan for Iraq” a Missed Opportunity

Senator Barack Obama’s “My Plan for Iraq” was published in Tuesday’s New York Times and has been warmly received in Europe, where he is in general far more popular than Senator McCain; it should serve as a welcome statement for those like myself who are leaning enthusiastically his way. The main points were ones he has articulated before: that he will give the military a new mission on Day One as President—that of ending US involvement in that theater and redeploying our energies to the true “front” in the terror-war, the Pakistan/Afghanistan border region.

Senator Obama also reiterates what has perhaps been his most cogent strategic sound-bite: that “we must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in.”

But there is more in this text, and it is high time that a prominent Democrat stated the matter as clearly as he has done. Two sentences near the end of the essay make clear that this would-be President would indeed undo the Bush team’s true desires for Iraq. “I would not hold our military, our resources and our foreign policy hostage to a misguided desire to maintain permanent bases in Iraq,” he insists. And again: “Unlike Senator McCain, I would make it absolutely clear that we seek no presence in Iraq similar to our permanent bases in South Korea.”

Six years and more than one trillion dollars later, we still do not have receipts for our expenditures in Iraq, and thus far the Congress and the Senate have been criminally negligent in their role as financial overseers. But there is increasing evidence to suggest that, surge aside, the creation of enormous permanent military bases in the southern desert has been and continues to be one of the major tasks of our forces currently stationed in Iraq.

It bears recalling that we left semi-permanent bases in northern Saudi Arabia after the first President Bush’s first Gulf War, and it was the presence of those same bases on “holy land” that turned Osama bin Laden against the United States as well as the Saudi regime that permitted the bases to exist. After September 11th, we quietly withdrew, and most of that material is now in southern Iraq. It was clearly the initial strategic goal of the Rumsfeld/Cheney team to make those Iraqi bases permanent, so as not to have to rely on the sometime support of neighboring allies like Turkey to stage our frequent military activities in the Persian Gulf region.

It is here that I must quibble with Senator Obama’s otherwise laudable position paper. It is striking that, for all the talk of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the name Sunni appears only once in the entire essay and the words Shi’ite and Islam never appear at all. By failing to add religion to the mix of his remarks, the Senator fails to make clear why his departure from the Bush/McCain plan for a future Iraq is so critical.

If the Arabian peninsula is “holy land” for most Sunni Muslims (and not only them), then southern Iraq is holier still to most Shi’a. Karbala is where the Prophet’s own grandson, Husayn, was assassinated, and the event is commemorated there each year in impressive, apocalyptic and frenetic form. To situate permanent US bases in southern Iraq would be at least as ill-advised and provocative as leaving them in northern Saudi Arabia proved to be.

Indeed, for all the knowledgeable military chatter about “Sunni warlords” and “Shi’a militia,” it has never been clear that any US officials actually know what the difference between the two is about, nor why it is religiously as well as politically salient. Certainly the current US president and his team demonstrate no such knowledge, nor even the curiosity to know. And Senator McCain continues to confuse the matter by referring to “Al Qaeda in Iran,” clearly unaware that a Sunni terrorist organization would not be very saleable in the largest Shi’ite country on the planet. Our current geopolitical position in the region hinges on this knowledge.

Iran is the only Shi’ite governed country in the Muslim world. But neighboring Iraq is a majority Shi’ite country that had long been run by a repressive Sunni minority under the leadership of the late Saddam Hussein. Iran’s interest in protecting the rights of the Shi’a majority in the country are altogether reasonable and legitimate, which is why significant and long-standing power-sharing arrangements are so critical to the long-term success of the governing bodies we leave behind in Baghdad.

Of course we will talk to the Iranians; we already do. But to engage in such discussion from the perspective of recognizing and respecting the importance of the historical split between Sunni and Shi’ite forms of Islam might go a long way to clarifying the why’s and wherefore’s of yet another fault-line in the Tigris Valley and US foreign policy alike.

Senator Obama has repeatedly been asked to speak to religion and religious questions in a way that his rival has never been. The current mess in Iraq provides him with an opportunity to turn this necessity into a virtue, and into a strategy for electoral as well as foreign policy success.