A Political Light At The End Of The Iraqi Tunnel?

[ Posted Wednesday, May 16th, 2007 – 02:34 UTC ]

It must be clearly stated that the Bush administration just doesn't really have a good track record when it comes to predicting what the Iraqi government is going to do (or when it'll get done, for that matter). This may ultimately prove to be the Iraq war policy's undoing. Because of this inability to see Iraqi political realities clearly, President Bush is about to get blindsided by the Iraqi parliament. This will a be a "one-two" punch (it should be noted), since immediately afterwards, a growing wave of Republican congressmen are going to do some Bush blindsiding of their own -- by jumping ship on his Iraq policy, and voting with the Democrats to end the war. But more on that in a moment.

Consider the White House's track record for predicting the Iraq parliament's performance on just one single issue in Iraq: the passage of an oil revenue-sharing law, or (as Tony Snow likes to call it) a "hydrocarbon law." President Bush himself was the first to bring the subject up, last June:

"I've directed the Secretary of Energy to travel to Iraq to meet with his counterpart and identify ways we can provide additional support. It's up to the Iraqis to pass a hydrocarbon law, which they're now debating. It's up -- for the Iraqi government to decide what to do with the people's asset. Our advice is to be careful, and to develop it with the people's interest in mind."

Ignoring the fact that Bush seems to be advocating socialism (gasp!) in Iraq; when you follow the actual progress of the Iraq oil law, you can clearly see why Bush is not eager to talk about any other "benchmarks" for the Iraqi government. They really pushed this one as a "benchmark" of political progress in Iraq, but it didn't exactly work out the way they planned. Here is an abbreviated record of the unfounded optimism on the subject (which started as a full-court press administration talking-point last October) emanating from Press Secretary Tony Snow's podium (all bold emphasis in the below quotes has been gratuitously added by me):

"For instance, by the end of the year, there will be a hydrocarbon law. As you know, the share of petroleum receipts is an enormously important issue, not only economically, but politically within Iraq."

"...we've [the White House has] talked a lot about the hydrocarbon legislation. That's going to be voted on, we understand, this month."

"It appears, for instance, that there is going to be a cabinet vote quite soon, maybe this week, on hydrocarbon law. They're working pretty aggressively and assertively also on other reconciliation efforts, including revisions to the de-Baathification law and the election law."

At this point, an unidentified member of the White House Press Corps (it could possibly have been Mr. Dormouse, but eyewitness accounts vary) awoke from a deep slumber, and actually asked Tony a pertinent and relevant question:

Q: "Tony, on the same subject, can you just give a better sense of what you're watching for? There are no specific dates, they don't have a vote on this hydrocarbon law at a specific date. So is it just a sense that the Iraqis are doing their part, that you're watching?"

MR. SNOW: "No, I think -- what we take a look -- for instance, I've mentioned maybe the most important part right now is the hydrocarbon law, because that's one that takes the considerable revenues from oil and natural gas and distributes them equitably across the country. They're moving pretty rapidly toward passage of that, and that is enormously significant because it says to everybody, you've got a financial stake in the success of this country."

The entire assemblage of the White House press at this point immediately went back to sleep, and not even a dramatic announcement the next day could awaken them from their somnolence.

"Within the last 24 hours, there has been progress on the hydrocarbon law."

"...[Prime Minister Maliki] has told the Council of Representatives that he wants the Council, during its current legislative session, which just has a couple more weeks to run, to pass a hydrocarbon law and also de-Baathification reform."

Finally, almost two months after his initial deadline for passage (not merely getting out of committee, mind you, but actual enactment) of the Iraq oil law... Mr. Snow proudly announced, on 2/26/07:

"Good afternoon. We open with a bit of good news: The Iraqi Council of Ministers had passed -- or has approved the hydrocarbon law, which will be passed on to the Council of Representatives at sometime in the near future."

"Near future." Hoo boy. Maybe Tony was trying out his comedy routine?

Now for some reality from Iraq. Their legislative process is even more confusing than our own congressional law-making contortions, apparently. Dana Perino (filling in for Tony Snow) gave a press briefing with Dr. Ali Al-Dabbagh, billed as "Spokesman for the Government of Iraq." Here's what he had to say about the oil law on 4/13/07:

Q: "Doctor, the administration here often cites progress on the national oil law and de-Baathification. Yet, those benchmarks have not been met yet. What is the progress report on those?"

DR. AL-DABBAGH: "The hydrocarbon law is already approved by the cabinet, and we are waiting on the revenue sharing law to be also submitted to the cabinet to be approved, and then simultaneously they will go to the council of representatives, in order to be approved."

Q: "But it's been in that spot for a while. It's been approved from the cabinet. What's the time line for getting approved by the parliament?"

DR. AL-DABBAGH: "It has been submitted to the -- it's got a priority. The priority is in the house of representatives. They've got their priority. But we feel that this is very urgent, and the government do urge the council to approve it, along with the revenue sharing, which is very, very important. The de-Baathification, as you said, there are a draft -- four draft being submitted. One of them is the by -- presidency council and the cabinet council, and it is now in the council of representatives, along with the other three drafts, which they are going to get one draft in order to get it approved."

Q: "So if you were to predict when those things would pass, what's the time line? A couple months, end of the summer, this year?"

DR. AL-DABBAGH: "We thought that 2007 is the year where all this important laws will be decided, also the election, government election as well."

As I said, it's no wonder the White House isn't thrilled about imposing benchmarks on the Iraqi government, who seem to define "moving pretty rapidly toward passage" as: "we think we may get around to it sometime this calendar year, if we find the time, that is." Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times recently reported the current reality of the situation:

It has not even reached parliament, but the oil law that U.S. officials call vital to ending Iraq's civil war is in serious trouble among Iraqi lawmakers, many of whom see it as a sloppy document rushed forward to satisfy Washington's clock.

Opposition ranges from vehement to measured, but two things are clear: The May deadline that the White House had been banking on is in doubt. And even if the law is passed, it fails to resolve key issues, including how to divide Iraq's oil revenue among its Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni regions, and how much foreign investment to allow. Those questions would be put off for future debates.

There is, however, one issue on which the Iraqi "clock" may be moving faster than the Washington "clock."

This week's news from Iraq is actually good news, for a change. Good for Democrats in Congress, good for congressional Republicans, good for (assumably) the Iraqis, and good for the seven-tenths of all Americans who want to see an end to American troops in Iraq. Good for almost everyone, right?

Well, not so good for the Bush White House and their "stay the course" echo chamber, but then they've really had their moment in the sunshine already, haven't they?

I refer, of course, to the fact that 144 members of Iraq's parliament (a majority of the 275 total) have co-signed a petition to impose a timetable for American troops to leave Iraq. While chances for the actual passage of such a law are in doubt, it appears to be a real possibility and must be addressed as such.

The optimistic view is that when historians look back at the entire debacle of Iraq, this may be seen as the big turning point and big opportunity for America to "declare victory and get out" (as we are so often wont to do).

Both Tom Hayden and Arianna Huffington have written excellent articles here in the last few days on the subject, and I largely agree with both.

I also think that (assuming the Iraqi parliament actually passes this into law) there will be far-reaching political implications, both here and in Iraq.

In Iraq, because of its parliamentary system, it may force a "no confidence" vote on the Maliki government in their parliament. Prime Minister Maliki has been trying to keep the Bush administration happy by never publicly supporting a timeline for American withdrawal (which has undoubtedly taken some arm-twisting on our part). But if the Iraqi parliament votes for withdrawal, his governing coalition may fracture. This would force new national Iraqi elections, and it's anybody's guess who would emerge in charge of the new Iraqi government. One thing for certain, it would bring the progress of the entire Iraqi government to a screeching halt (remember how many months it took for them to "form a government" after the last election?).

Back here on the American political scene, I have been predicting for a while that this autumn is when Democrats in Congress will put together such a strong bipartisan majority (together with fence-jumping Republicans) that they will be able to pass legislation to end the Iraq war -- and sustain it over a Bush veto -- a crucial point, since Bush will indeed veto any such legislation. But if the Iraqi government explicitly tells us they want us to leave (and when), then all bets are off. This fall may be too pessimistic an estimate for when the GOP congressional rank-and-file could turn on Bush (in desperation, in order to try and retain their jobs in next year's election).

Because Iraqi rejection of American troops would be an enormous gift to so-called "moderate" congressional Republicans, who are already wavering in their support of Bush's war. This would give them the necessary political cover to vote with the Democrats to get out of Iraq.

Think about it -- even Republicans from the reddest of red NASCAR states could proudly campaign on such blatant political spin as the following:

"We tried to succeed in Iraq, we even supported Bush's surge, but the Iraqis themselves were so ungrateful for our sacrifice that they actually asked us to leave. Now, American soldiers will always fight for a good cause, but we will not fight to protect a government that doesn't want us there and demands we leave. If the Iraqi government wants that badly to have a civil war, I say we pull our boys out and let them go to hell in their own way!"

Even having said all that, I will go out on a limb here and predict that there still won't be enough congressional Republican votes to override a veto until after September. However, if the Iraqi parliament passes a "here's your hat, here's your coat, there's the door" type of law, I will also predict that the fracturing of the congressional Republicans will begin sooner than expected, and will grow throughout the summer; rather than having one big split (picture: rats abandoning a sinking ship) right after General Petraeus' September report to Congress.

Because, make no mistake, America's involvement in the Iraq war will not end until enough congressional Republicans feel enough pressure from their own constituents to break with the White House. It truly is in GOP hands, and not the Democrats; and this dynamic won't change until enough Republicans start breaking with Bush and voting independently. Democrats need about 60 House Republicans, and almost 20 Republican Senators to sustain a Bush veto. Until they get these crucial GOP votes, the war will continue. And the Iraqi parliament kicking the American military out of their country is only going to make this inevitability occur earlier, so it truly is good news.


To end this article on a hopeful note, I leave you with what (on the face of it at least) appears to be an original and intelligent idea for negotiating the future of Iraq, written by Rend Al-Rahim (former Iraqi representative to the U.S.). She suggests a Dayton-type conference of the factions battling within Iraq.

Now, I admit that the chances of success for such a bold plan are impossible to predict at this point. But it is indeed a much better idea than I've heard from the White House anytime recently, so maybe... if given a chance... it might hold out some hope of avoiding a bloodbath in Iraq when we do actually leave.

OK, it also might not... I fully admit that. But at this point, anything innovative seems to be worth a try. In any case, her article's definitely worth a read.


[Bonus Wednesday cartoon links: Tony Auth on a needed wake-up call, and this Tom Toles cartoon on Cheney's recent Iraq trip should be in the dictionary under the heading "hypocrisy," or maybe, as he suggests, "irony."]


[Cross-posted at the Huffington Post]

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