Billed as a surprise, nothing could have been more predictable. US Vice President Joe Biden landed in Baghdad yesterday to celebrate July 4th with the troops, a nice gesture but hardly what the situation demands. There was a reason why President Barack Obama needed to make the trip himself.
Biden is considered relatively powerless by Iraqi officials - and they wouldn't be the first.
As he often does Biden soon found himself in a deeper hole. He knew what he was walking into, his trip an overt response to reports in the US media that Iraqis believe the White House has lost attention and composure. But rather than address the hard reality confronting both Iraqis and Washington, he put on a smile and snuffed the debate out.
"I remain, as I have been from the beginning, extremely optimistic about the government being formed here," Biden told reporters... "The country is in the position where, in one sense it looks... most difficult putting the government together. In another sense this is local politics. This is not a lot different from any other government."
Biden’s argument that Iraq’s election “isn’t so different from Western governments” was similarly made during Afghanistan’s election crisis, highlighting Washington’s subjective view towards democracies that it occupies. And lying to Iraqis by saying “your democracy is like a Euro government” won’t work. Of course democracy can be unstable, but Iraqis are politically savvy and know this isn’t common deal-making.
They know their country is deadlocked by political and religious forces, some beyond their borders. Some believe Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has illegally overstayed his term. "Extremely optimistic” is pushing it.
Sending Biden to Iraq reveals that the White House didn’t understand the message. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, one of many Iraqi officials irritated by a lack of attention, wants to speak directly with Obama. Busy as he is, this was his trip to make. There should be no fear of being caught between al-Maliki and challenger Ayad Allawi so long as he speaks to both and stays impartial.
Biden isn’t an Iraqi expert so much as the default captain; Obama charged him with overseeing the withdrawal so that he could expend his energy on Afghanistan. But his surge is thrown into new doubt as Washington struggles to execute a successful withdrawal from a stabler country.
The debate over the “success” of Iraq’s surge will resurface too, prompting questions of how Obama’s surge can succeed in a harsher environment. There will be no Sunni Awakening in Afghanistan, and Iraq’s Awakening is already dying as the Shiite government begins disarming these militias. Must be part of the political gamesmanship Biden refers to.
That leaves the most precarious decision of all - December 2011. Iraq and Afghanistan share much in common.
Voice of America flatly states, “Under a security agreement, all U.S. troops must pull out by the end of 2011.” Yet the real reason Biden may be working to resolve Iraq’s political deadlock is to speed up negotiations of postponing that deadline. Rumors of a 20,000-30,000 “residual force” surfaced before the Status of Forces Agreement was signed in 2008 and never ceased.
The New York Times recently reported, “Beyond August the next Iraq deadline is the end of 2011, when all American troops are supposed to be gone. But few believe that America’s military involvement in Iraq will end then. The conventional wisdom among military officers, diplomats and Iraqi officials is that after a new government is formed, talks will begin about a longer-term American troop presence.”
US officials wary of interfering in Iraq’s political process apparently lose that inhibition when US forces are concerned.
As the cards lie Biden is more likely to contribute to Iraq’s uncertainty. Beyond failing to give Iraqis the audience they desire, pushing them to reconcile in order to re-negotiate the SOFA threatens to detonate a chain reaction. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who insists he should lead a new government over Ayad Allawi, has teamed with his fellow Shias in the Iraqi National Alliance to secure enough parliament seats.
Cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Sadr Movement plays a major decision-making role in the INA, absolutely demands that all US troops withdraw from Iraqi soil by January 1st, 2012. And while many Iraqis may wish to see US troops stay beyond the deadline, Sadr likely isn’t alone in his opinion.
Nor has his militia disbanded.
How Washington reconciles Iraqi’s political vacuum, chronic instability, the need for a prolonged military presence, and opposition from major quarters of Iraqi society remains to be seen. Iran’s nuclear program factors somewhere into this equation. What we know for sure is that Biden isn’t the answer, as he quickly confirmed through idealistic propaganda. Obama isn’t the answer either, but he’s the start.
Iraqis want to hear from him and, more importantly, speak to him. He took the credit for George Bush’s surge. Now he must take responsibility for the withdrawal.