October 11, 2004

In defense of waiting...

I'm also going to file a (sort-of) dissent on all this tut-tutting over Bush supposedly "delaying" military action in Anbar until after the election. I'll remain agnostic on the issue of whether or not this is actually what's happening (the Los Angeles Times article was pretty poorly sourced), and just offer a few thoughts:

1) I'm hoping to write more on this in Mother Jones, but from talking over the past few days with military people who have been on the ground in Iraq, it seems there is genuine disagreement over the best way to take the Sunni cities. Some commanders think negotiations will work. Others want to storm in immediately. Now, I do think that these commanders should work it out among themselves, rather than have the Bush administration decide for them, but bear in mind that a delay isn't necessarily a losing strategy. Just because we read a lot of quotes from 20-year-old Marines itching to shoot up Fallujah doesn't mean that that's what should happen.

2) From what I gather, it seems that Ayad Allawi genuinely distrusts John Kerry, and doesn't want to commit to major operations against Fallujah and Ramadi before the election, only to see a Kerry administration come in and undercut his whole approach. The Iraqi National Guard certainly can't take the Sunni strongholds on their own, so Allawi needs to make sure he has full and unwavering support from the U.S. (I'll admit, though, my sources on the whole "Allawi doesn't trust Kerry" bit are much weaker.) In the medium term, I think a Kerry administration will do a better job of letting military leaders be military leaders, but right now, John Negroponte seems to have helped smoothed over a lot of the military egos bickering about in Iraq, and that's a happy equilibrium that shouldn't be disrupted in the middle of a major offensive.

3) It's perfectly possible that either the U.S. military commanders or the Iraqi interim government called off the planned strike for legitimate reasons. The latest round of negotiations with the mujahideen shura in Fallujah may well succeed. From the bit of reporting that the Post offered, it seems like the tribal leaders are breaking slightly from the foreign fighters on the council. Omar Hadeed, who may represent Zarqawi's Tawhid al-Jihad, opposed the peace delegation from Fallujah. That sort of split could prove important.

(Victor Davis Hanson, meanwhile, says that past experience in Fallujah teaches us that we should never negotiate. I'm not sure what he'll say about this latest news, but I can tell you he's wrong. (Surprise, I know.) The problem in Fallujah in April wasn't just that we negotiated, but that we had no idea who we were negotiating with—Baathists and Salafists, mostly. I think the interim government, and president Ghazi Yawar especially, will be much better-equipped to conduct this round of negotiations. If it fails, fine, but we don't really know how things are going at this point.)

All that said, I do think the Bush administration has needlessly politicized and affected events on the ground in Iraq. They deserve to be voted out, etc., etc. (This sort of thing, for instance, is inexcusable.) But I think we're getting a bit too hot and bothered over this one.

Update: Eric Umansky is on the same page. He seems to know a lot more about Fallujah than I do, so I'll take his word for it.
-- Brad Plumer 4:15 PM || ||