The primary characteristic of a national government is a monopoly on the use of force; without this, a state does not in any meaningful sense exist. Governments have two means to this end: fear and intimidation or moral and political legitimacy. For most of Iraq’s modern history, the former was the one employed by a succession of monarchs and despots culminating with Saddam Hussein.
Now that Iraq’s government is pseudo-democratic, its power must be derived from the Iraqi people’s faith in the notion of a coherent and unified country. This faith is tested when the government directs the military to suppress unrest in one part of the country in the name of national unity. Two things immediately become known: whether there is sufficient faith in the Iraqi government to compel soldiers to fight against their fellow countrymen, and perhaps more importantly, whether the Iraqi government has the capacity to neutralize rogue elements that threaten its monopoly on force.
The recent incursion by the Iraqi military into the southern city of Basra demonstrated not only that there are significant numbers of Iraqi soldiers unwilling to fight against fellow Iraqis (as evidenced by thousands of desertions), but the inability of the Maliki government to exert control in crucial parts of the country.
Unfortunately, the situation is actually worse than it seems.
Even with the help of significant American air power and troops, Maliki was unable to defeat Sadr’s Mahdi Army in Basra or any other Iraqi city. The result is a further weakened national government and a further empowered rival Shiite faction, one whose main demand is for Americans to leave Iraq.
Why Maliki decided at this point to take on the militias in the South, and to what extent he was targeting the Mahdi Army or other rogue elements, is still not entirely clear. It appears likely that the move was aimed at strengthening his party, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, before the upcoming provincial elections. So this was probably part of an intra-Shiite power play that in fact resolved nothing.
So the intra-Shiite competition is heating up. The Kurds in the North continue to hunger for independence. The Sunnis,whom we have been arming for months, are becoming restless with the lack of political reconciliation. Only Iran seems to be gaining from these developments. It continues to forge ties with the two dominant Shiite blocs, so that it stands to benefit no matter which side ultimately triumphs; and it continues to target American soldiers via proxies (although the extent of this is unknown).
As America’s reality-based presidential candidates acknowledge, the only options we really have in Iraq are bad and worse. No wonder the invasion is considered the worst foreign policy disaster in American history. There is no end in sight, and it appears that our shifting tactics are doing little to affect the fundamental fact that for all practical purposes an Iraqi nation-state no longer exists.
P.S. Seems like Frank Rich of the NYT had similar thoughts.