It seems that Iraq's pretend prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, recently gave an interview to the respected German newsmagazine Der Spiegel in which he said Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq was about the right one. Not surprisingly, the Bush White House went ballistic.
I suspect that Iraqi officials had not heard expletives used so many times in one sentence when Bush administration officials privately expressed their displeasure at Maliki's reported comments since they last had to pass a roadblock manned by U.S. Marine Corps lance corporals.
Here the Bush administration is hoist with its own petard. On the one hand, it wants "democracy" in Iraq. On the other hand, it wants to keep U.S. troops there indefinitely, using Iraq as a base from which the United States can dominate the region. But the Iraqi people want the American troops to go home, so "democracy" leads to an American withdrawal at Iraq's demand. Squaring that circle would take an Otto von Bismarck -- Imperial Germany's legendary chancellor in the 19th century. But current U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice isn't remotely in that class.
Poor Maliki, whose only goal is survival, is left twisting in the wind, an awkward position for a marionette. He remains dependent upon American support, without which he would be either an exile or dead in 48 hours. But he also must grasp at such shreds of legitimacy as he can, which requires setting a date by which the U.S. armed forces will leave his country. The two requirements contradict each other fatally.
Meanwhile, Moqtada Sadr, the fiery young leader of the Shiite Mehdi Army militia that remains strong and popular in Baghdad and Shiite-dominated southern Iraq, continues to insist on a demand for a rapid and total American withdrawal from his country with his characteristic unambiguous determination and clarity.
Sadr has been following the twists and turns of Iraq's "government" led by Maliki like Captain Hook's crocodile stalking its victims in J.M. Barrie's play "Peter Pan." I suspect that if Sadr survives, he will in time enjoy his dinner at Maliki's expense.
One man could cut the knot and free both Iraq and the United States from their entanglements. Were Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to say what Maliki said -- that the timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq urged by Obama, D-Ill., the putative Democratic presidential candidate, is about right -- no one could gainsay him.
The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government dare not contradict Sistani, nor could Bush or Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Republican presidential standard-bearer in the fall U.S. election, without risking all-out war between American troops in Iraq and the Shiite community that comprises 60 percent of the population of Iraqi and that also dominates its army and police forces.
For the sake of both countries, let us hope that Sistani has listened to what Obama and Maliki said.
(William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation.)