New Duranty: The heavy fighting that broke out last week as Iraqi security forces tried to oust Shiite militias from Basra is reverberating on the presidential campaign trail and posing new challenges and opportunities to the candidates, particularly Senator John McCain.
The fierce fighting — and the threat that it could undo a long-term truce that has greatly helped to reduce the level of violence in Iraq — thrust the war back into the headlines and the public consciousness just as it had been receding behind a tide of economic concerns. And it raised anew a host of politically charged questions about whether the current strategy is succeeding, how capable the Iraqis are of defending themselves and what the potential impact would be of any American troop withdrawals.
Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has made the Iraq war a centerpiece of his campaign; he rode to success in the primary season partly on his early advocacy of the troop buildup. The battle in Basra broke out as he returned from a trip to Iraq this month, proclaiming that violence there was down and that the troop escalation was working.
Mr. McCain, of Arizona, said he was encouraged that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s government had sent its troops to reclaim Basra from the Shiite militias. “I think it’s a sign of the strength of his government,” Mr. McCain said Friday at a stop in Las Vegas. “I think it’s going to be a tough fight. We know that these militias are well entrenched there. I hope they will succeed and succeed quickly.”
Or, it could be that we have been so successful in controlling Sunni-Shi'a fighting (or that the populations have simply separated on their own) so now we see the smaller fissures, both intra-Sunni and intra-Shi'a open up.
The Democrats, who are calling for phased troop withdrawals, are beginning to point to the fighting in Basra as evidence that the American troop buildup has failed to provide stability and political reconciliation — particularly if the fighting leads one militia, the Mahdi Army, to pull out of its cease-fire; that could lead to a new spate of sectarian violence across the country. Some are saying the fighting strengthens their case for troop withdrawals.
But the McCain campaign is hoping to turn that argument on its head, asserting that the battle in Basra shows just how dangerous the situation on the ground in Iraq is. It says this bolsters Mr. McCain’s argument that a premature withdrawal of American troops would lead to more widespread violence, instability and perhaps even genocide.
I want a commander-in-chief who can watch with cool equanimity while our enemies fight each other, and who will not be drawn back into Iraq's civil war on humanitarian grounds. I want a commander-in-chief who values American lives above the lives of Iraqis and who recognizes the difference between American national interest and Iraqi national interest.
“I think that what this demonstrates is that there are very powerful forces that still remain that do not want to see the success of the central government and that would relish the prospect of the American withdrawal so that they could try to fight or shoot their way into power,” said Randy Scheunemann, the McCain campaign’s senior foreign policy adviser. “Would you rather have the Maliki government in control, or the Iranian-backed special groups in control, or Al Qaeda in control?”
This is a false choice. The Maliki government is Shi'a and is already aligning itself closely with Iran. The Sunnis will fight or be crushed by the Shi'a, which is unlikely to happen because they will receive backing from the Sunni states, especially from Saudi Arabia. The likely long-term outcome is a low-level civil war that will flare up from time to time. The Sunni states and the Shi'a states will continue to sell oil to finance the war and they will be more likely to increase production because they will need the money so the price of oil is more likely to drop than rise. The Kurds are likely to split from the rest of the country and we should support that in exchange for a base in Kurdistan. That's all we need. It's long past time to admit that the Iraq "Light-Unto-The-Muslim-Nations" project has failed. It's time for plan B.