A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, encoded in a sudoku, transcribed in a crossword

The other day I heard that, as of December, the US changed its policy toward Iranian agents encountered in Iraq. According to the report, the former policy had been 'catch and release' and the new policy is 'kill or capture'.

What? Until December of 2006 the US military's policy toward foreign agents found in Iraq was catch and release?! I'm pretty much a pacifist, and even I think those tactics sound irresponsibly naive. On the other hand, what does kill or capture mean? Are we talking about combat or summary executions? And, are we talking about limited term detention or are we talking about eternal confinement with some torture thrown in? And why, if the policy changed in December, is the Bush Administration crowing about it now?

Actually, the last question has a pretty simple answer. The Bush Administration is crowing about the new policy now because they're making a show of escalating the tension between the US and Iran.

That itself, though, is pretty strange. Leaving aside the fact that war with Iran would be a really bad idea, how does escalating the rhetoric against Iran and its religious fundamentalists square with a surge strategy in Iraq that basically amounts to the US taking the side of the Shia against the Sunni in Baghdad? Which is to say that there's something bizarre about the US simultaneously (a) turning up the heat against Iran, and (b) taking the side of Iran's Iraqi allies in the burgeoning Iraqi Civil War.

One possible answer to this puzzle, and the one I had pretty much resigned myself to accepting, is that the US powers that be still don't understand basic facts about the religious and sectarian divisions in that part of the world, and that this thoroughgoing ignorance has led to a massively incoherent policy.

This morning, though, I'm entertaining the possibility that what's going on is stupidity of an entirely different order. That is, I'm thinking that we're seeing the Clintonian political formula of triangulation applied as actual real military strategy. It goes like this. The US wants to be the dominant political actor in Iraq. To accomplish this, we have to disentangle the Shia from Iran, which means we must wage a serious campaign against Iranian influence. On its own, though, such a campaign wouldn't accomplish our goals because it would inevitably anger the Shiite majority -- in fact, we'll have to take on some Shiite militias in the name of freeing the rest of the Shia from foreign influence. Thus, we must triangulate by striking out against some group that's opposed to the Shia. Since we aren't going to strike out at ourselves or the Kurds, that leaves the Sunni. Sucks to be them.

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