Carl Levin reveals the Democrats' Iraq "strategy"

The senator's proclamations that the surge is working make clear that Congress will do nothing to end the war and much to ensure its continuation.

Published August 22, 2007 1:34PM (EDT)

(updated below)

Carl Levin, probably the most influential Senate Democrat on Iraq policy, just returned from a "visit to Iraq." In a joint statement with GOP Sen. John Warner, he pronounced that "the military aspects of President Bush's new strategy in Iraq, as articulated by him on January 10, 2007, appear to have produced some credible and positive results."

While expressing various "concerns," they particularly hailed "the continuing improvement in the ability and willingness of the Iraqi Army to conduct combat operations against the insurgents." Predictably, war supporters on Fox News and elsewhere wasted no time in hauling out the "even-Carl-Levin-admits-we're-winning" claim.

The "trip to Iraq" which Levin and Warner took was so short and so controlled that it makes the Pollack/O'Hanlon jaunt look like a full tour of combat duty. "We completed a very productive two-day visit to Iraq," they said, adding that they spent the whole "two days" meeting with U.S. military commanders (including Gen. Petraeus) at "forward operating bases," as well as with Iraqi politicians. And, you see, they "came to Iraq to assess the progress being achieved by 'the surge.'"

All of that is fine; Senators ought to meet with U.S. military commanders and hear their war reports. And melodramatic, highly controlled trips to war zones is how politicians (and think tank "scholars") behave. That's not new.

But Levin has not -- as his joint statement claimed and media reports recite -- "seen indications that the surge of additional brigades to Baghdad and its immediate vicinity and the revitalized counter-insurgency strategy being employed have produced tangible results in making several areas of the capital more secure." It is patently inaccurate to claim that Levin "saw" anything meaningful. Rather, he simply heard claims voiced by U.S. military officials about U.S. military progress and Iraqi troop improvement -- claims the U.S. military has been making for four straight years -- and he is now repeating those claims.

The idea that Iraq military forces are improving is, by all accounts, absurd. As Nir Rosen pointed out in an in an excellent interview with the always superb Amy Goodman, "the Mahdi Army basically controls the police and the Iraqi army," and the "army" generally is little more than a sectarian force in most parts of the country. Even a fan of military sources like Joe Klein recognizes this:

I do think [Levin and Warner] were taken a bit by the military on the question of progress in the Iraqi Army and police forces. I tend to agree with the non-coms who wrote the op-ed in the Sunday New York Times, and also with some of the combat officers I spoke with in Iraq-- that the Iraqis are quite undependable, in many cases little more than militia members in camouflage.

Levin is willingly serving as an uncritical spokesman here for the most dubious and sunny claims of the U.S. military regarding our great progress. But he knows that, and it is almost surely deliberate. The important point here is that Levin's statements signal the clear strategy Senate Democrats are embracing in the preparation for Gen. Petraeus' imminent visit.

Senate Democrats largely will not challenge, but rather will embrace and celebrate, the notion that The Surge Is Working and that we are making "military progress," whatever that might mean this month. To "oppose the war," they instead will follow the strategy Hillary Clinton has adopted this year -- namely, blaming the Iraqis for failing to take advantage of the great opportunities we are creating for them. Levin's demand that Prime Minister Maliki be replaced is designed to accomplish exactly that. Democrats are afraid to challenge the U.S. military's claims that we are Winning, and are even afraid to oppose the Surge, so instead, they will take the safest course -- heaping the blame on the Iraqi government and demanding that they improve.

As a matter of substance, Levin's call for the Prime Minister to be replaced is, of course, completely nonsensical. As Hilzoy pointed out, the political failures in Iraq are not due to Maliki's failures and replacing him will therefore achieve nothing. Beyond that, as Rosen explained in the Democracy Now interview:

The Iraqi government doesn't matter. It has no power. And it doesn't matter who you put in there. He's not going to have any power. Baghdad doesn't really matter, except for Baghdad. Baghdad used to be the most important city in Iraq, and whoever controlled Baghdad controlled Iraq. These days, you have a collection of city states: Mosul, Basra, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Irbil, Sulaymaniyah. Each one is virtually independent, and they have their own warlords and their own militias. And what happens in Baghdad makes no difference. So that's the first point.

Iraq is so disintegrated, so ethnically cleansed, so broken that, as Rosen points out, it does not really exist as an entity any longer:

Iraq has been changed irrevocably, I think. I don't think Iraq even -- you can say it exists anymore. There has been a very effective, systematic ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from Baghdad, of Shias --from areas that are now mostly Shia. . . . And Baghdad is now firmly in the hands of sectarian Shiite militias, and they're never going to let it go.

Rosen reports that the number of externally displaced Iraqis is now close to 3 million -- most of them Sunnis, representing a sizable portion of the Iraqi Sunni population which, in turn, further ensures Shiite sectarian militia control of most of the country. Always obscured by the exciting debate over whether we are "winning" is what happens if we "win" -- the installation of an Iran-and-Syria-friendly Shiite "government" surrounded by an ethnically divided country armed and ruled by sectarian militias loyal to a whole variety of Middle East actors. In light of all of that, Sen. Levin's claim of "military progress" is just incoherent.

By endorsing the idea that the Surge is Working, Senate Democrats are ensuring that the Congress will never force George Bush to withdraw from Iraq. That is the only meaningful result of Levin's remarks. It gives cover to Congressional Republicans to stay with the President, ensures that many "Blue Dog" Democrats will do the same, and almost certainly bolsters Republican support and weakens independent and some Democratic opposition to the war (after all, if "even Democrats" agree the Surge is Working, then we obviously ought to give the Iraqis more time, etc. etc.).

That the Congress will do nothing -- before September, during September and after September -- to force Bush out of Iraq is not news to anyone other than our Beltway elites. The only certain political fact has long been that we will be occupying Iraq at roughly the same levels of troop strength throughout the Bush presidency. But the fact that Congressional Democrats actually seem to weaken by the day -- they actually seem, as a group, to be turning gradually more pro-war -- is extremely alarming for an entirely different reason.

An article by former CIA officer Robert Baer in this week's Time Magazine -- headlined: "A Prelude to an Attack on Iran" -- casts such an attack as virtually inevitable prior to the end of the Bush presidency, and likely much sooner than that:

Reports that the Bush Administration will put Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the terrorism list can be read in one of two ways: it's either more bluster or, ominously, a wind-up for a strike on Iran. Officials I talk to in Washington vote for a hit on the IRGC, maybe within the next six months. . . .

Strengthening the Administration's case for a strike on Iran, there's a belief among neo-cons that the IRGC is the one obstacle to democratic and a friendly Iran. They believe that if we were to get rid of the IRGC, the clerics would fall, and our thirty-years war with Iran over. It's another neo-con delusion, but still it informs White House thinking.

And what do we do if just the opposite happens -- a strike on Iran unifies Iranians behind the regime? An Administration official told me it's not even a consideration. "IRGC IED's are a casus belli for this administration. There will be an attack on Iran."

In a recent column, Dan Froomkin notes that "a quite significant majority of experts who do know a lot about the region believe that an attack in Iran would be a disaster for America and the world," and then proceeds to list just some of those experts whom the media should interview. While true, it really does not matter.

The administration's willingness to attack Iran does not depend upon public opinion or even Congressional authorization. They are going to argue that they already have legal authorization to do so because the attack is part of the war in Iraq ("IRGC IED's are a casus belli for this administration") and they will launch an attack, by air and/or with the use of aircraft carriers, when they decide they want to.

That is why the complete lack of urgency on the part of Congressional Democrats -- their aiding and abetting of this P.R. campaign about how much military progress we are making in Iraq and how Iraqi forces are improving and how we need more time -- is so dangerous, so alarming. The tragedy we have unleashed in Iraq is a fait accompli.

But there is much more destruction that can come from our staying, particularly its use as a pretext for what many war advocates have wanted all along -- the use of our military force to bomb Iran and/or achieve regime change. Given our militarily weakened state, the latter goal seems virtually impossible. And, ironically as always, a bombing campaign against Iran would do more to strengthen that government than anything else we could do. But Iran is the Evil Enemy. And Enemies must be attacked and bombed and harmed. The people who think that way are very much still in control, beginning with the Oval Office, and it is very difficult to see how that outcome will be averted. Certainly the likes of Carl Levin aren't going to stop it.

UPDATE: As Scientician notes in Comments, House Democrats, in the face of intense AIPAC lobbying, already backed away once before from a rather mild amendment that would have required (or, more accurately, purported to require) the Bush administration to obtain Congressional approval before attacking Iran:

House Democrats, who have been divided on whether the president needs authorization from Congress to attack Iran, suggested yesterday that they are more united on the controversial issue.

But with Iran measures possibly headed to the House floor as early as today, it is unclear if Democrats have the votes to pass legislation calling for the president to seek authorization from Congress for a preemptive strike on Iran.

House Democratic leaders initially attempted to insert Iran language in their now-vetoed Iraq supplemental bill, but abandoned the plan after some New York Democrats, including Reps. Eliot Engel and Gary Ackerman, balked at the language.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an influential group that advocates strong U.S. ties with Israel, lobbied heavily to remove the Iran provision in the supplemental, arguing that the measure would weaken President Bush's attempts to dissuade Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

That measure would have merely required Congressional approval before starting a new war with Iran -- it did not oppose such a war -- and Democrats could not even manage to enact even that minimal (and constitutionally redundant) safeguard. That they will act to stop an attack on Iran if the administration wants one seems virtually impossible -- especially in the midst of a Flourishing Surge, and particularly once the anti-Iran P.R. campaign really revs up (with all the "Ahamdinejad = Hitler" imagery and "they-are-attacking-our-troops" claims and "we-can't-jeopardize-our 2008-victory-by-appearing-weak-on-national-security" fears in full force).

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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