George W. Bush and John Kerry have been trading questions about their past views and actions on Iraq. Their campaign exchange is worse than pointless -- it is a distraction from the debate they should be having about Iraq's present and future.
Such a debate might force Bush to recognize that he is losing his moral and pragmatic bearings in Iraq as his administration dilutes its commitment to democracy and the rule of law there. And it might force Kerry to spell out a clear, realistic alternative to the current miasma, if he has one.
The candidates' obligations and options are not equal, of course. The president's decisions are not couched in the tactical subjunctive, as are Kerry's promises. Iraq, the United States and for that matter the rest of the world all live with the consequences of Bush's words -- if he sticks to them.
Last fall the president gave three stirring speeches in which he vowed to end 60 years of reflexive American support for repression by Arab governments: Morality and pragmatism required Washington to support democracy in the region. Iraq would be the model.
But Bush's priorities seem to be different today, as his administration engages in or condones cynical maneuvering designed not to create democracy in Baghdad but to create political cover at home and fear and turmoil in Tehran.
Simultaneous U.S. military assaults on Shiite rebels in Najaf, a new and brutal power play in Baghdad against that ever troublesome Shiite politician Ahmed Chalabi, and the temporary suppression of critical news coverage by al-Jazeera satellite television this week have established the fact that "stability" of the Arab strongman kind is again tolerated at the White House.
Long backed by the CIA, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is now supporting the U.S. intelligence agency's closely related campaigns to destroy Chalabi and use Iraq to subvert Iran's ruling Shiite ayatollahs.
The agency is determined to protect its all-important liaison relationships with Sunni Arab governments in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which fear the Shiite majorities in Iran and Iraq. That is the decisive background to the appalling choice of priorities for the use of military and judicial power that Bush at least implicitly condones in Iraq.
Baathist killers and Wahhabi terrorists go unarrested, unprosecuted and unchallenged in the streets of Fallujah, Ramadi and Sunni sections of Baghdad. At the same time the ragtag Shiite militia of Moqtada Sadr triggers an all-out U.S. assault in Najaf that risks damaging some of the holiest shrines of the Shiite branch of Islam, for small strategic gain.
Sadr deserves no sympathy. U.S. miscalculation is almost entirely responsible for turning this insignificant demagogue into a rebel with a following. Shiites, who are still bitter and distrustful of the United States for its failure to support their uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991, are likely to note the disparity of treatment of the Sunni and Shiite insurgencies, and to conclude that Shiite political will is the true target of the Najaf operation.
The fact that Allawi is by heritage a Shiite will not reduce the sting of his approving the operation. An ex-Baathist, he has always made his career in Sunni-dominated power structures.
The timing of the latest burst of specious charges and allegations against Chalabi, his nephew Salem and his political party also suggests, at a minimum, a highly selective use of limited resources.
Chalabi, whom I have known and written about for 30 years, has made a large number of necessary and unnecessary enemies in his long campaign to bring down the Baathists and then to keep them from returning to power. Among the unnecessary and unforgiving enemies was L. Paul Bremer, Bush's proconsul in Baghdad during the formal U.S. occupation and a man quick to see a hidden Iranian hand in Iraq's problems.
This past spring Bremer collaborated with Bush's National Security Council staff on a seven-page memorandum that outlined a strategy for marginalizing Chalabi. This exercise has now been relentlessly brought to fruition while arrests and prosecutions of insurgents have gone unpursued.
Bremer created a secret court, appointed a manifestly unprepared jurist to head it and made sure Iraq's interim government could not disband it after the U.S. administrator left. It is this judge, Zuhair Maliky, who issued a warrant for the arrest of Chalabi while he was -- guess where? -- in Tehran.
Chalabi's fight with other Iraqi factions in Baghdad is his business. But the Bush team petulantly stakes American prestige, credibility and honor on a covert campaign of score-settling against Chalabi, Sadr and any other Shiites who might be influenced by Iran, while terrorists reign in Fallujah. This is not strategy; this is folly.