America's new defense secretary, Leon Panetta, has probably never won a poker game in his life.
Washington, or at least the Pentagon, is wracked with anxiety over whether it will get an invitation from the Iraqi government to keep US forces in Iraq past their December 31 departure date. Washington is in knots at the prospect of Iraq falling ever more deeply under the influence of neighbouring Iran. All of this sent Panetta scrambling to Baghdad for some arm twisting and tough talk that came across as profoundly nervous.
"I'd like things to move a lot faster here, frankly," Panetta told U.S. troops at Baghdad's Camp Victory. "Do you want us to stay, don't you want us to stay? Damn it, make a decision."
Panetta also suggested that the Iraqis do more to stop mounting meddling by Iran, which U.S. military officials blame for a spike in violence against U.S. forces. In June, 14 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq — nearly all in Shiite-dominated areas — making it deadliest month of the war in three years.
"We are concerned about Iran and weapons they are providing to extremists here in Iraq," Panetta said. "In June, we lost a hell of a lot of Americans as a result of those attacks. And we cannot just simply stand back and allow this to continue."
If Iraq didn't put more pressure on Iran, the U.S. might act unilaterally, Panetta said. But he didn't specify how Iraq's fledgling democracy could sway powerful Iran, a neighbor with which it has had strong relations during Maliki's two terms.
What Panetta ignores is the substantial, homegrown Iraqi resistance that will accept nothing less than a total American withdrawal by December 31. This includes Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army. They may have material support from Tehran but they're not an Iranian proxy army. Which begs the real question - is America planning to use provocations from al Sadr as a pretext for launching a greater war with Iran? Over the past decade stranger things have indeed happened. Stay tuned.