Belmont Club

The smile remains

“I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly; you make one quite giddy.”
“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.
“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life.”

Lara Logan, the CBS correspondent in Baghdad, had something to say about a war which was vanishing rapidly from the front pages. “Generally what I say is, ‘I’m holding the armor-piercing R.P.G. It’s aimed at the bureau chief, and if you don’t put my story on the air, I’m going to pull the trigger.’ ” She needed those threats to get her network to print anything about Iraq.

According to data compiled by Andrew Tyndall, a television consultant who monitors the three network evening newscasts, coverage of Iraq has been “massively scaled back this year.” Almost halfway into 2008, the three newscasts have shown 181 weekday minutes of Iraq coverage, compared with 1,157 minutes for all of 2007. The “CBS Evening News” has devoted the fewest minutes to Iraq, 51, versus 55 minutes on ABC’s “World News” and 74 minutes on “NBC Nightly News.”

The Iraq War is vanishing from the front pages. That’s probably because situation on the ground no longer fits any of the narratives that were so confidently projected in 2007. Written off as a morass rapidly descending into chaos, Iraq is threatening to become a regular country. And that’s not the sort of news many newspapers are interested in.

Recently, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki “urged Iraqi doctors and other professionals who have settled abroad to return home in the wake of the improving security situation in the war-savaged country.” The reality of an emerging Iraqi state has been backhandedly acknowledged by Teheran, which has suddenly become solicitious of its neighbor’s sovereignty, but only after having failed to strangle Iraq in the crib. The new Iranian line is that an American presence represents the greatest threat to Iraqi sovereignty. The Teheran Times indignantly denounced negotiations which would establish US bases on Iraqi soil as the “main obstacle in the way of the Iraqi nation’s progress and prosperity.” When a country which only recently was trying to annex Iraq turns its attention to sweet-talking it, then the situation on the ground has truly changed.

But success at stabilizing Iraq has created a different set of problems for the United States. Like a child that has grown into a teenager and is about to reach full maturity, Iraq rightfully wants its own way. The problem facing the United States is how to craft its new relationship with Baghdad. David Ignatius argues that the time is fast approaching for America to change gears in Iraq. To scale down, not in defeat, but in victory. The key to a sustainable future relationship, he says, is to find the right way to deal with a newly empowered Iraq.

The continuing U.S. presence in Iraq will depend on Special Operations forces — both the “black” SOF that will hunt terrorists and the “white” SOF that will train and fight alongside the Iraqis. We will also need a strong intelligence presence. As uniformed troops decline, the need for CIA paramilitary forces and case officers will increase. … Indeed, our future Iraq presence may look more like covert action than traditional warfare. We’ve made a lot of friends among tribal leaders in the past several years, as the United States finally began to learn the tools of counterinsurgency.

While a number of problems remain to be solved before any long term security agreement between the US and Iraq can be reached, none of these seem insurmountable. “Iraq’s foreign minister said he was optimistic that Iraq and the U.S. would be able to finalize a long-term security agreement by a July 31 deadline, crediting what he described as new “flexibility” by the Bush administration.” The Asia Times provides a glimpse into the subjects of contention: whether the US military had authority to detain Iraqi citizens and hold them in US custody; whether security contractors would be subject to Iraqi law and how many bases in total there would be. But the thorniest one of all — and the one which may be the most loosely specified in the end — was whether US forces in Iraq could operate against hostile neighbors.

The US insists it will not use Iraq to launch an attack against other countries in the region, such as Iran or Syria, Zebari was quoted as saying – although, as Inter Press Service (IPS) reported last week, some of the language in the March 7 draft agreement appears to be deliberately misleading and leaves open the possibility for the US to respond “defensively” to threats to its troops or other interests.

The Asia Times argues that with Bush left with only six more months in the White House “and given domestic opposition in Iraq to the deal, Iraqi leaders appear to want to pressure the US to make as many concessions as possible. ” On the other hand Iraqis dare not push George W. Bush too hard. If Maliki cannot nail down a long-term security agreement with the Bush Administration, he will be vulnerable to abandonment by Barack Obama, something he could hardly look forward to. But ironically, Obama’s hostility to Iraq may push Maliki into getting what he can while he can from George Bush, rather than waiting to face the Man of Change.

Although Iraq has been steadily vanishing from the American front pages like the Cheshire Cat, it may reappear again, on another branch, when we least expect it to, as Iran and Syria must fear.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where –” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“– so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

Always listen to vanishing cats.