The idea that al-Qaeda might take over Iraq is nonsensical. Numerous estimates show that the group called Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its foreign fighters comprise only 5 to 10 percent of the Sunni insurgents' forces. Most Sunni insurgents are simply what Wayne White—who led the State Department's intelligence effort on Iraq until 2005—calls POIs, or "pissed-off Iraqis," who are fighting because "they don't like the occupation." But the foreign terrorist threat is frequently advanced by the Bush administration, often with an even more alarming variant—that al-Qaeda will use Iraq as a headquarters for the establishment of a global caliphate. In December 2005, Rear Admiral William D. Sullivan, vice director for strategic plans and policy within the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered a briefing in which he warned that al-Qaeda hoped to "revive the caliphate," with its capital in Baghdad. President Bush himself has warned darkly that after controlling Iraq, Islamic militants will "establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia."
The reality is far different. Even if AQI came to dominate the Sunni resistance, it would be utterly incapable of seizing Baghdad against the combined muscle of the Kurds and the Shiites, who make up four fifths of the country. (The Shiites, in particular, would see the battle against the Sunni extremist AQI—which regards the Shiites as a heretical, non-Muslim sect—as a life-or-death struggle.)
Dreyfuss analyzes the role of the Kurds and of Iraq's neighbors: "Precisely because the idea of all-out civil war and a regional blowup involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey is so horrifying, all the political forces inside and outside Iraq have many incentives not to go there." And yet this analysis has no purchase outside the mind of quasi-crooked House Democrat John Murtha. It's all very reminiscent of the late sixties and early seventies, when the failure of the Great Society was becoming apparent but the idea that we could right the ship by abandoning some programs was utterly brushed off. "You can't possibly believe that we could lift people out of poverty by cutting welfare? Egads!" (This is a little specious, probably, but other people have had similar gripes.)
(Via Matt Yglesias.)