Why is the Iraq war different from all other American wars?
In each of our other wars, American soldiers fought the same adversaries from start to finish. We fought the British in the Revolution and the War of 1812, Mexico in the Mexican War and so on. Only in the Korean War did we have to engage an additional nation's army (that of China) after the war began. In a number of wars, our enemies received aid from other nations (Vietnam from the Soviet Union, for instance), but the actual combat involved fighting only our original adversary.
Not so in Iraq, where we are now fighting our third distinct enemy. In the war's first phase, we engaged Saddam Hussein's government and, after it fell, pro-Saddam Hussein and other Sunni forces that waged a guerrilla war against us. In its second phase, we fought a group that hadn't even existed when the invasion began, al-Qaida in Iraq. By our own military's admission, al-Qaida in Iraq was never responsible for more than a small fraction of the violence there, but it was the group most implacably hostile to our soldiers and to much of the civilian population. In this, we were greatly aided by the Sunni forces that had been our main adversaries in the war's first phase but which had come to loathe al-Qaida. As the Sunni resistance took up arms against al-Qaida, we reclassified the Sunnis as friends and armed them, though they remained opposed to the Shiite-dominated national government we claim as our primary ally.
Now, according to the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker before Congress last week, our main adversaries in Iraq are the Shiite forces being aided by Iran, the Shiite power next door. Al-Qaida in Iraq has been largely confined to the area around Mosul, and most of the attacks on U.S. forces and on the authority of the Iraqi government, they said, come from Iranian-backed Shiite militias, many aligned with Muqtada al-Sadr. Then again, Iran also backs the Shiite-controlled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — which is why it was Iran that negotiated the cease-fire between Maliki's forces and Shiite militias after Maliki's offensive against the militias in Basra ground to a halt.
The political underpinning for Maliki's government comes chiefly from anti-Sadr Shiite factions, most notably the Hakim family and its Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which was headquartered in Iran during much of Saddam Hussein's reign and, indeed, was actually founded by Iran's governing clerics. That's one reason Maliki's government accorded a rapturous public reception to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he visited Baghdad last month, while President Bush still slips in and out of Baghdad like a thief in the night. The pro-Iranian tilt of the government is the reason none of the Middle East's Sunni nations — Saudi Arabia, Egypt or any of the rest — has diplomatic relations with Baghdad.
Our current policy in Iraq, then, is to defend those Shiite groups aligned with Maliki, their closeness to Iran notwithstanding, against those Shiite groups, also close to Iran, aligned either with Sadr or in any event against Maliki. And just because we're now focusing on enemy No. 3 doesn't mean that enemy No. 1, the Sunni insurgents, won't take the field again against Maliki and our own forces — only this time, they'll have the arms we gave them to fight al-Qaida in Iraq.
Our war in Iraq, then, is different from all our previous wars because we are occupying a nation at war with itself, where groups take up arms against us because we defend a government to which they're not reconciled, a government that may itself pose a threat to our interests. In such a nation, we accumulate enemies simply through our presence.
If our chief concern is, as we now assert, the spread of Iranian influence, what we need is a Sunni-led government, which could not attain or hold power in majority-Shiite Iraq save by force. That is, we need another Saddam Hussein, only this time, one less antagonistic to the United States. But this would be a resolution we could not support, because it would make a mockery of our entire misadventure in Iraq.
And this is the war that John McCain wants to wage until victory is ours. What no one — including McCain, Petraeus, Crocker and Bush — can do is articulate just what such a victory would look like.
Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of American Prospect and the L.A. Weekly.