A strange bit of stories coming out of Joe Biden's trip to Iraq yesterday. In the first, the Vice President warned that US troops would bug out if sectarian violence increased.
In meetings with senior Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Biden stressed that the United States would remain engaged in Iraq, even as its military role diminishes in a withdrawal that is expected to dramatically gather pace after parliamentary elections in January.
But a senior administration official briefing journalists said Biden made that support contingent on Iraqi progress in resolving long-standing conflicts, some that bedeviled Iraq even before the United States invaded in March 2003.
If "Iraq were to revert to sectarian violence or engage in ethnic violence, then that's not something that would make it likely that we would remain engaged because, one, the American people would have no interest in doing that, and, as he put it, neither would he nor the president," the official said.
He added that there "wasn't any appetite to put Humpty Dumpty back together again if, by the action of people in Iraq, it fell apart."
I would argue that there's no ability to put Humpty Dumpty back together again is it falls apart. The decisions on sectarian violence and reconciliation will be made by Iraqis. Despite our firepower we have had little ability to control events over there.
At the same time, another report suggests that the US sought a greater diplomatic role in pushing reconciliation, and the Prime Minister rebuffed him:
Biden's meeting with Maliki was a reminder that although the U.S. maintains about 130,000 troops in Iraq, its influence is waning rapidly now that the clock is ticking on the timetable for the departure of all American combat troops next year.
Days earlier, Iraqis had celebrated the withdrawal of U.S. forces from their cities as a "day of national sovereignty." And though Biden's visit was welcomed as evidence that the United States doesn't plan to completely disengage from Iraq, Maliki made it clear that he does not want U.S. officials to be as closely involved in Iraqi politics as they have been.
Maliki told Biden that "the reconciliation issue is a purely Iraqi issue and any non-Iraqi involvement might have a negative effect," said Maliki's spokesman, Ali Dabbagh. "We don't want the Americans to come and get involved."
Biden "received the message well, and he said he is ready to help whenever the Iraqi government asks," Dabbagh said.
I'm trying to piece together the narrative here. It goes something like this:
Biden: We want to help you reconcile.
Maliki: You can't help us reconcile.
Biden: Well, if you don't reconcile, we will leave.
Maliki: We want you to leave.
Biden: Then we're in agreement!
All indications are that Maliki has successfully used the leverage of US military might to crush his internal enemies, and now wants to govern as a potentate without interference from the US. And yet Arab-Kurdish violence does actually threaten to break apart the country, though I wonder if everyone - particularly Biden - would see that as a bad thing.
The Arab-Kurdish divide in Iraq is extremely unfortunate and economically irrational. If Iraq can ever reestablish security and develop the southern oil fields, which are enormous, Kurds will be drawn down south as workers in large numbers, and get spread around the country. The Kirkuk fields are old, water-logged and on the way to being worked out. Iraq's future probably lies elsewhere and therefore probably so does the future of Kurdish citizens of Iraq. Kurds would be wiser to forget about trying to control territory in the 19th century way and surrender to the messiness, ethnic mixing and multiple identities, and uprootedness of postmodern life. And nothing better exemplifies such postmodernism than the polyglot hydrocarbon states of the Gulf. If Kurds aren't careful they'll be stuck landlocked, with small resources, and surrounded by powerful local enemies fearful of their separatism, while Nepalis, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans get rich working in the oil economy of the Arab Shiite south of Iraq.
I think the view of the Administration, at least on Iraq, is that they don't want to get sucked into some other country's internal civil conflict. Maliki obviously believes he can come out on top in such a struggle because he has the numbers behind him. Lots of parts of the world are dangerous, and we don't sit 130,000 American troops in them to babysit. If we cannot affect spasmodic violence - and we can't - we shouldn't sit around waiting.