“How can you say I am not betrayed?”

Is it OK with Bush that Maliki is going after the Sunni sheikhs who switched sides at American urging and joined the “Sunni Awakening”?

Two big developments in Iraq.

First, it seems that Bush and Maliki have agreed to a timetable that gets U.S. troops out by sometime in 2011. (What will you bet that the one non-negotiable element of the U.S. position was that the final date had to be later than the 2010 date Obama proposed? Remember, for these folks politics starts at the water’s edge.)

Spencer Ackerman thinks that Barack Obama’s response &#8212 treating “getting out” as the definition of success &#8212 is pitch-perfect. I wouldn’t hazard a guess about how this will play politically.

The second development &#8212 perhaps not coincidental, and certainly much grimmer &#8212 is that the Maliki government has decided to double-cross the Sunni insurgents who double-crossed their jihadist buddies by taking U.S. money and changing sides. (Apparently hundreds of them are marked for arrest in Diyala alone.)

The original double-cross was called the “Anbar Awakening,” later broadened to “Sunni Awakening.” I suppose the new policy could be called &#8212 using the veterinarian’s euphemism &#8212 “putting the Sunnis to sleep.”

Now strategically this might be the worst blunder Maliki could have made &#8212 the possible trigger of a real civil war &#8212 or it may be a very sensible reaction to the fact that the Sunni Awakeners have lots of Iraqi (and American) blood on their hands, and probably won’t stay bought once the money stops flowing. You’d have to be much closer to the situation than I am to even make an informed guess. It partly depends on how much of the weaponry the U.S. provided is still around to be turned on the Iraqi security forces.

But Iraqi political-military strategy is not all that’s at stake here. There’s the little matter of the national honor (if you like old-fashioned terminology) or commitment credibility (if you prefer to sound like a game theorist) of the United States. “Honor” sounds like a moral concept; “credibility” sounds like a strategic one. But they amount in this case to the same thing. The question isn’t what we “owe” the folks who #&8212 having done their level best to kill our troops and keep Iraq in the grip of its Sunni minority #&8212 took our bribes to switch sides, but how we need to act toward them now to be able to do the same thing somewhere else later.

The U.S. offered the sheikhs money, weapons, training, and protection in return for joining our team. This wasn’t the first time in history we’ve tried to buy off an opposition force, and it won’t be the last. (What’s shocking is that it took until 2006 for someone in the U.S. government to figure out to try it with the Sunni sheikhs.) Our ability to do so depends in part on whether the folks on the other side think our word is worth something. If the Maliki Government makes fools out of the folks who trusted us, other transaction partners in other parts of the world will learn the appropriate lesson. The Times quotes one of the leaders of the Awakening:

Some people from the government encouraged us to fight against Al Qaeda, but it seems that now that Al Qaeda is finished they don’t want us anymore. So how can you say I am not betrayed?

Of course a single betrayal won’t make a U.S. commitment worthless, but it will make it worth less, and we will lose opportunities (not to mention lives) as a result. That ought to worry the Bush Administration more than I think it actually does.

Small players on the world stage, who engage in relatively few transactions, can benefit from opportunism. Big players, who engage in many transactions, gain from keeping their commitments. (One disadvantage of our Presidential form of government &#8212 compared, not just to a party dictatorship like China or Singapore or a monarchy like Saudi Arabia, but even to a “Whitehall”-style parliamentary democracy where career civil servants make more of the important decisions &#8212 is that the U.S. government has a much harder time keeping its promises.)

If we need to get out &#8212 which we do &#8212 then our leverage with Maliki and his buddies is correspondingly limited. Still, this is something we ought to complain about bitterly. At the very minimum, we ought to try to arrange asylum for the people who trusted that a promise backed by the U.S. government was as sound as a … well, under current circumstances I suppose I should say “Euro.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com