Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

  How bad are things in Iraq? Here are two documents you should know.

Today Rep. Jane Harman posted a diary at Daily Kos arguing that the next 3 to 6 months will be critical for building a viable state in Iraq, after which the U.S. might be able to leave the country "in better shape than when we found it." That is not far from the position that the Bush administration has been forced back upon, as it becomes ever harder to deny that Iraq is in "bleak" condition, to borrow Tony Snow's term.

I'm not convinced. Iraq is in meltdown, and though they won't let on to the public, the Bush administration knows it full well. In the past, Bush has "known" things and still not permitted them to impinge on his policies. Now, however, it seems likely that the truth about Iraq looms so large that it's actually having practical effects upon Bush's Iran policy.

There are two documents you ought to know about, if you don't already. One is a cable from May 6 by Ambassador Khalilzad. No, not the cable published on Sunday. This was an earlier, equally bleak assessment that got little attention.

The other, an Iranian letter from 2003, was an offer to cut a deal over Iran's nuclear program. Bush's recent shift in Iran policy, in the context of this rejected deal, suggests that he's all but given up on succeeding in Iraq.

Document A (and A Prime)

First, the cable. It was reported two weeks ago by Al Kamen in the Washington Post, who evidently got a copy directly from Khalilzad. Kamen quotes salient bits of the text. I reproduce seven extracts:

(1) Crime, terrorism, and warfare are a significant threat in all parts of Iraq. Active military operations are ongoing....Remnants of the former regime, transnational terrorists, criminal elements and numerous insurgent groups remain active.

(2) Attacks against military and civilian targets continue throughout the country, including inside the international zone. These attacks have resulted in deaths and injuries of American citizens. Planned and random killings are common as are kidnappings for ransom and political reasons.

(3) Overall security in Iraq is worsening, with kidnapping by criminal gangs and insurgents a particular problem. These bold, well-equipped, and sophisticated groups/gangs are terrorizing . . . businessmen [and] contractors...

(4) Outspoken critics of the war who painted themselves as allies of the insurgency have been kidnapped, mistakenly believing that by aligning themselves with . . . the hostage takers, they could guarantee themselves an exemption from being targeted.

(5) armed militia, loyal to various non-governmental entities, have limited to extensive control of parts of Baghdad and some cities in Iraq.

(6) Shootings, kidnappings, suicide bombings (both pedestrian and vehicular) and mortar or rocket attacks are a constant threat in Baghdad.

(7) The local police are poorly trained, poorly equipped and corrupt.

The May 6 cable purports to be a general overview of the situation in Iraq. The grim cable from June 6 (PDF), as vivid as it is, focuses largely on what Embassy staff are reporting to Khalilzad about their own problems. Some of it could be dismissed as mere anecdotal evidence.

There are of course a few statements in the now famous cable that definitely tell a larger picture, especially this in section 6: "An Arab newspaper editor told us he is preparing an extensive survey of ethnic cleansing, which he said is taking place in almost every Iraqi province." Khalilzad also states in section 15 that they are shredding documents that name Embassy employees, and he remarks that some staffers are asking "what provisions would we make for them if we evacuate."

Not to minimize the importance of the June 6 cable, but the one from the previous month is an essential complement to it. Kamen would do us a considerable favor if he would publish the full text.

So, the Bush administration has known for at least a month and a half that the Ambassador himself is depicting Iraq as unraveling quickly. That may partly explain Bush's willingness, virtually unparalleled, to sit down and talk to critics of his Iraq policies, a few days before he dashed in and out of Baghdad.

Document B

The blunt talk from Khalilzad, perhaps along with other evidence about the deteriorating condition of Iraq that was accumulating in the White House, also seems to be partly responsible for Bush's sudden reversal in late May regarding Iran. After years of posturing - refusing to talk to Iran, rejecting diplomatic overtures, or insisting upon pre-conditions that everybody knows the Iranians would not accept - Bush finally began to show some flexibility and agreed conditionally to join multilateral talks with Iran.

Now, it's true that the reversal of course is largely due to U.S. failure to get an agreement at the U.N. for international sanctions against Tehran, as Gareth Porter argued last week. American diplomatic efforts to build support for tough sanctions fell apart during May, even though as a negotiating tactic Rice offered to join EU talks with Iran.

Despite claims that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has regained the diplomatic initiative from Iran with a conditional offer to join multilateral talks with Tehran, the real story behind the policy shift is that the US administration has suffered a decisive defeat of its effort to get international sanctions for possible military action against Iran....

The New York Times reported on April 30 that US officials had described a plan by Rice to get agreement on a UN Security Council resolution requiring that Iran cease enriching uranium that would be enforceable under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Chapter VII authorizes the use of penalties, and if those are ineffective, of military force.

It now is clear that Rice hoped to get the agreement of the five powers to her plan by making a concession the US administration had been resisting for weeks - the agreement to join the talks between the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) and Iran....

Thus the real story behind Rice's dramatic May 31 announcement and the proposal announced in muted terms the following day in Vienna is that the US had backed down and accepted a package without the threat of Security Council sanctions that Rice and Bush had wanted going into New York.

Yet the failure of Rice's diplomacy seemed like a foregone conclusion, to me at least, and in any case it did not require that Bush agree to join EU talks. His administration has remained aloof for years from European efforts to talk Iran down from its nuclear posture. The reversal was about more than just accepting a different diplomatic venue. It was about accepting actual diplomacy per se.

Bush Co. has almost always treated diplomacy as the sissy's option. For five years, any attempts in DC to work toward an agreement with Iran about its nuclear interests have been systematically thwarted for the simple reason that the primary and overriding goal for Cheney, and therefore also for Bush, has been regime change in Iran.

It's widely acknowledged that earlier overtures from Iran were rebuffed because the Mayberry Machiavellis, Cheney in particular, believed that they were on the verge of overthrowing the Iranian regime. In fact, the invasion of Iraq was supposed to facilitate that, either by destabilizing Iran or by serving as a base to support incursions by all those Iranian dissidents who were supposed to flock to Cheney's banner.

Well, Cheney's star has drooped and Rice has gained enough influence to convince Bush to try a new way. That much is pretty well agreed.

I would add that one of the main grounds for this power shift has been Bush's increasing awareness that Iraq is falling apart. Far from being a basis of leverage to use against Iran, Iraq increasingly has become leverage for Iran to employ against the U.S. We have definitely lost Iraq, in the sense that Cheney and Rumsfeld thought we could seize it, use it, and despoil it. If any country has won the Iraq War, it is Iran.

Therefore I would argue that the decision in late May to reverse course and agree to negotiate directly with Iran, was also based in part on a (so far tacit) admission by Bush that Iraq is falling apart and probably is beyond salvaging in any meaningful sense.

There's a document that can help us to measure just how far Bush has retreated in his posture on Iran, the offer to negotiate sent to Bush by Iran in 2003. It's been talked about in general terms for a long time, but very recently the same Gareth Porter has published significantly more details about the letter's contents in American Prospect.

The Iranian offer was remarkable in itself, not just because in 2001-2 the new administration had made its hostility to Iran very clear, but also because it was sweeping in the way that Gorbachov's offers to Reagan were. It put virtually every significant issue up for negotiation simultaneously, in a grand package. Iran was convinced that the U.S. planned to attack it as soon as Iraq was under control, so they hurriedly tried to cut a big deal. Here is Porter:

As the United States was beginning its military occupation of Iraq in April, the Iranians were at work on a bold and concrete proposal to negotiate with the United States on the full range of issues in the U.S.-Iran conflict. ...

The proposal, a copy of which is in the author's possession, offered a dramatic set of specific policy concessions Tehran was prepared to make in the framework of an overall bargain on its nuclear program, its policy toward Israel, and al-Qaeda. It also proposed the establishment of three parallel working groups to negotiate "road maps" on the three main areas of contention -- weapons of mass destruction, "terrorism and regional security," and "economic cooperation." ...

The proposal offered "decisive action against any terrorists (above all, al-Qaeda) in Iranian territory" and "full cooperation and exchange of all relevant information." ...

To meet the U.S. concern about an Iranian nuclear weapons program, the document offered to accept much tighter controls by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in exchange for "full access to peaceful nuclear technology." It proposed "full transparency for security [assurance] that there are no Iranian endeavors to develop or possess WMD" and "full cooperation with IAEA based on Iranian adoption of all relevant instruments (93+2 and all further IAEA protocols)." ...

The document appears to have assumed that the United States would be dependent on Iran's help in stabilizing Iraq. It offered "coordination of Iranian influence for activity supporting political stabilization and the establishment of democratic institutions and a nonreligious government." In return, the Iranians wanted "democratic and fully representative government in Iraq" (meaning a government chosen by popular election, which would allow its Shiite allies to gain power) ...

The list of Iranian aims also included an end to U.S. "hostile behavior and rectification of status of Iran in the U.S.," including its removal from the "axis of evil" and the "terrorism list," and an end to all economic sanctions against Iran.

It all looks pretty attractive, especially in retrospect. But even at the time, this should have been greeted as a major diplomatic success, a windfall from all the saber-rattling. The reception, however, was chilly in Washington in May 2003.

Iran's historic proposal for a broad diplomatic agreement should have prompted high-level discussions over the details of an American response. In fact, however, the issue was quickly closed to further discussion. [CIA analyst Flynt] Leverett believes the document was a "respectable effort" to provide a basis for negotiations. Yet he recalls that there was no interagency meeting to discuss it. "The State Department knew it had no chance at the interagency level of arguing the case for it successfully," he says. "They weren't going to waste Powell's rapidly diminishing capital on something that unlikely."

The outcome of discussion among the principals -- Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell -- was that State was instructed to ignore the proposal and to reprimand Guldimann [the Swiss ambassador] for having passed it on.

In other words, the administration was actively hostile to negotiating with Iran just after the invasion of Iraq, even when the Iranians were seen to be eager to cut a deal. And what a deal it would have been.

Contrast that document with the small concessions that Bush is fighting so hard now to obtain, in multi-lateral rather than bi-lateral negotiations. What has changed? Iraq has become a quagmire, and Bush is looking to get out rather than to stay in.


North Korea presents a simultaneous and parallel failure in diplomacy, as toys pointed out today. An arrogant and foolish Bush administration dismissed real chances whenever they arose to make actual progress in negotiating an end to the North Korean nuclear program. This article from Washington Monthly is worth reading in full for the gruesome details.

Bush has neither threatened war nor pursued diplomacy. He has recently, and halfheartedly, agreed to hold talks; the next round is set for June. But any deal that the United States might cut now to dismantle North Korea's nuclear-weapons program will be harder and costlier than a deal that Bush could have cut 18 months ago, when he first had the chance, before Kim Jong-il got his hands on bomb-grade material and the leverage that goes with it.

The pattern of decision making that led to this debacle--as described to me in recent interviews with key former administration officials who participated in the events--will sound familiar to anyone who has watched Bush and his cabinet in action. It is a pattern of wishful thinking, blinding moral outrage, willful ignorance of foreign cultures, a naive faith in American triumphalism, a contempt for the messy compromises of diplomacy, and a knee-jerk refusal to do anything the way the Clinton administration did it.


  • I got this reply on one of my Torture articles.

    "If you are not with us, you are AGAINST us!"

    Typical Babble

    By Blogger Cyberotter, at 2:20 PM  

  • Isn't it amazing? With us on what, dragging the reputation of the U.S. into the gutter? Thanks, but no thanks.

    By Blogger : smintheus ::, at 9:12 PM  

  • I'm convinced that no matter what occurs in Iraq or congress' reaction to it, that Bush will never change direction in Iraq.
    He has such a hard time admitting to any mistakes in policy, he will never backtrack on the Iraq fiasco. I agree with your view that Iran has the advantage as regards Iraq, and those chicken-hawks in the administration that thought the opposite will pay for their neglegence and mis-steps. Peace.

    By Blogger jets, at 12:06 AM  

  • Here's another article on the Iranian offer from 2003, by Glenn Kessler in the Washington Post.

    Porter had already discussed the Iranian offer in March of 2006. It's the earliest news account I've found, so far.

    "Cabal" Blocked 2003 Nuclear Talks with Iran

    By Blogger : smintheus ::, at 3:09 PM  

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