A Big-Picture View of the Iraq Basing Deal

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Monday, October 20, 2008 at 12:10 pm

Prediction time. When the definitive history of the Bush administration’s prosecution of the Iraq war is written, its attempt to force the Iraqi government to sign a bilateral agreement authorizing an indefinite occupation will stand as its final massive blunder.

Let’s review. In November 2007, George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed in principle to a late-2008 deal that would set the legal terms for a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq. The Maliki government reportedly didn’t like the legal basis for the U.S. occupation — a United Nations Security Council mandate — because it considered it an affront to Iraqi sovereignty. Bush used that dissatisfaction as an opportunity to make the occupation an enduring strategic feature of U.S. foreign policy. His critics, including myself, feared that he would get his way.

Instead, it’s been a calamity for Bush. With the agreement in the final phases, most Iraqi political factions, including Maliki’s, are balking at the deal. A parliamentary rejection of the deal as it stands isn’t out of the question.  Already, the deal includes terms that the Bush administration has been dragged kicking and screaming into accepting — most importantly, a promise to leave Iraq entirely by 2011 at the latest, which is a reversal of everything Bush has ever said about “timetables” for withdrawal.

What happened? Most important, the administration again miscalculated the depth of Iraqi hostility to the occupation. It especially miscalculated the degree of pressure placed on Iraqi leaders by their people not to sign away the country’s independence, especially with provincial elections set for next year.

But as a matter of basic strategy, the administration didn’t realize that it boxed itself in. By opting against renewing the U.N. Security Council mandate authorizing the occupation — which will expire Dec. 31 — it had no choice but to accept any deal by the time the mandate expires. To remain in Iraq illegally is an absolutely untenable diplomatic position. As a result, the U.S. lost whatever leverage it actually had at the bargaining table, making it an impotent occupier despite the presence of more than 140,000 troops in the country. Whatever changes are made to the basing deal, they’ll all run in one direction: toward greater Iraqi sovereignty — and away from Bush’s desires.

What’s so extraordinary is that the administration didn’t have to abandon the Security Council authorization track. (I know, I know — a final irony, considering that abandoning the Security Council got the U.S. into the war in the first place.) At any point, this spring and summer, when the basing-deal talks deadlocked, it had the option of seeking a renewed U.N. mandate, deferring big-picture talks about the future of the U.S.-Iraq presence. But because of the administration’s hubristic insistence on forcing its successor to operate within the framework of its war, so much of what it wanted will be reversed by the very Iraqis who never asked for a U.S. occupation in the first place. Unforced errors are always the most painful.

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