September 18, 2007

Bush Hype And The Loss Of Sheikh


My question is, did George Bush effectively “off” an ally — and even undermine his Anbar strategy — for the sake of the “surge sale” and a single photo-op?

To flesh out the question, skip back to the last days of August, and the Administration’s  effort to sprucing up the Iraq campaign.  Of the three platforms for judging the picture — one military, one economic, and one political — it was this third category most amenable to last minute window dressing.

At that point in time, the Administration, and our Ambassador Crocker, were putting effort into forcing a show of solidarity among Iraq’s ruling elite.  My August 30th post focused on one such effort.  The photo op in question cast the Iraqi leaders in a bite-your-tongue display of token consensus surrounding the relatively insignificant (and still unratified) restoration of civil employment privileges of Baath party members.

Now, fast forward to George Bush’s media stunt in which he had himself air-shipped into Anbar on September 3rd to boost General Petraeus’ Sunni miracle.  In a dog-and-pony reprise, the Administration whisked the same characters to Fortress Patreus for a further photo op, this time with time with 43 himself.

When it came time to secure the coveted images of this meet-and-greet, however, the President — who went half-round-the-world for a few moments of mugging (in front of the camera) — failed to secure even one shot in Anbar with that ferried collective of Vice Presidents Abdul-Mehdi and al-Hashemi, President Talabani, Prime Minister al-Maliki, Deputy Prime Minister Salih as well as the Kurd leader Barzani.


In fact, the most “intact” shot of the group on Yahoo’s newswire was probably this one, featuring Bush in a “the script says shake my hand” gesture toward Talabani; a “what am I doing here” glance from Maliki, and the distant presence of that third suit, Sunni V.P. Tariq al-Hashemi, who back in Baghdad, could barely bring himself to play along.

The reason for this crappy shot, and the fact that nobody saw it, however, was not because of Iraqi resistance (although there seems plenty of that) but because the Administration had lined up a better date for this dance.

So what we got, instead, as this article and, especially, the inset photo from Voice of America illustrates, is the visual action shifting to the right side of the room.  Taking in the whole scene, what you have are the local tribal leaders — the current object of a U.S. love affair –flanking the President, backed up by the Condi, Crocker and Gates crew.

The money shot, however, (the one shouting loud from FOX to the NYT) is the one top-left above.  (Here’s the whole spread.)  In the pic, we see Bush beaming and preening with Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, touted by the military as our #1 tribal ally among allies in the panacea of the moment, the alliance forged with Sunni mixed flavors in the region.

Given the extraordinarily high profile of the meeting, the intense rivalry of the neighborhood clans, as well as the media savvy of all types of bad boys, however, wasn’t it odd Sattar wasn’t a little more concerned to avoid the exposure?  (Probably not, if he was really the corrupt power player a more independent media has seen him to be, hugging the limelight as America’s charismatic anti-al Qaeda poster boy of the hour.) 

As a strategic asset, however, didn’t the Administration and the Sattar-fawning military have concerns about setting him up this way — even before he had his 15 minutes at the White House?

When Sattar was murdered just nine days later, his brother and likely successor proclaimed:

“The martyrdom of Sattar will not affect this [pro-American, anti-insurgent] council because every member of this council has the same beliefs and the same motivations and this sad incident will not stop them from moving forward…. Although they killed Sattar, there are a million Sattars in Anbar.”

Interesting comment.  In spite of the fact Sattar was touted by the military as the leader among leaders in this clannish world, and a key coalescing figure of our palm-greasing operation in the region, and a man of such significance that his loss would compel the tears of key American military brass at the man’s funeral, somehow this guy wasn’t worth more than a photo op.

(image 1 & 3: Charles Dharapak/AP.  Sept. 3, 2007.  Al-Asad Air base in Anbar province.  Via YahooNews.  image 2: A.P. September 13, 2007.  Ramadi, Iraq.

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Michael Shaw
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