Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 11:55 am
This week the United States suffered its 4,000th military death in Iraq. That number will surely increase, as violence is now exploding across the country. Iraqi forces are clashing with the powerful Shiite militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. As if to offer denial in the face of disaster — and commit the U.S. to losing many more soldiers and Marines — the Bush administration has begun negotiations with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to keep U.S. troops in Iraq for years, even decades, after President George W. Bush leaves office.
The negotiation, set to conclude this summer, will establish the basis for a long-term U.S. occupation of Iraq. According to the Bush administration, the Iraqi government requested a bilateral agreement to replace the expiring U.N. mandate for the occupation, which offended Iraqi sovereignty. Asked if there was any irony in preparing a plan to keep thousands of foreign soldiers in Iraq in the name of Iraqi sovereignty, a National Security Council official, who requested anonymity, replied, “Sure, but we plan to negotiate that aspect” of the agreement.
Critics in the U.S. and in the Middle East are talking about the impending accords as the fulfillment of a hidden agenda. On Al Jazeera’s “Inside Iraq” program, a recent report on the negotiations began: “This firm handshake between President Bush and Prime Minister al-Maliki may seal what had been predicted all along: that the U.S. has no intention of withdrawing from Iraq.” Indeed, for years, the U.S. military in Iraq has quietly constructed massive bases that can garrison tens of thousands of troops indefinitely.
Another line of criticism concerns both the timing and the unilateralism of the negotiations. The Bush administration has less than a year in office, yet it is now negotiating a deal that will commit the U.S. to an open-ended continuation of its most momentous, and controversial, foreign-policy decision. At the very least, the accord will prove a thorny issue for any successor Democratic administration that wins election on a promise to end the war.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Democratic presidential candidate, wrote a letter to the president about this in January. The move “suggests the United States will indeed construct permanent bases in Iraq, feeding the perception that we intend to remain an occupying force for years to come,” Obama wrote. “It would tie the hands of the next commander-in-chief, decreasing his or her flexibility to confront a dynamic threat environment that has shown Al Qaeda more dangerous than at any time since September 11, 2001.”
Obama further requested that the president “submit any agreement reached in [U.S.-Iraqi] negotiations to the Senate for its advice and consent.” That’s precisely what the administration resists.
Ever since it announced in November that it would seek a long-term security agreement with Iraq, the Bush administration has refused to call the agreement a “treaty,” since that would require Senate ratification — something a Democratic-controlled Senate is sure to reject. A key State Dept. official, David M. Satterfield, recently testified that the agreement “will not include a binding commitment to defend Iraq or any other security commitments that would warrant Senate advice and consent.” Critics describe that determination as both legalistic and cynical.
In fact, some administration officials agree with Obama, somewhat, about the purpose of the security agreement. In an off-the-record conversation, one official suggested that if the recalcitrant Iraqi government is to make any progress on sectarian reconciliation — as Democrats say they want to see — Iraqi politicians must know that the U.S. will stay in Iraq to support them. While the point is debatable, its implicit premise is that the agreement must indeed tie the hands of the next administration.
The NSC official disputed that line of reasoning. Sectarian reconciliation “has not been [an] overarching [motivation for the agreement] at all,” the official said. “It’s really more about meeting the Iraqis here. We both have to agree with this.” The official added that there will be no specification of either troop numbers or duration of stay or permanent bases. “There will be no discussion of permanent bases because that’s not the plan,” the official added.
Instead, the official said, once the Iraqis insisted on ending the U.N. framework for the American presence, the administration had little choice but to find alternative legal justifications for the stay. “The key aspect is ensuring that coalition forces and American soldiers are protected, and civilians are protected,” the official said. “The president’s mandate to us has been to work to ensure [the U.S. military in] Iraq is [on a] sustainable posture, regardless of what administration comes in behind his. We haven’t looked and said, ‘If it’s a Democratic administration, we’ll go in one [direction], and if it’s a Republican administration, we’ll go another.’ Who knows?”
The negotiators met in Baghdad for the first time earlier this month. While there is no draft accord yet — and, indeed, no exchange of anything but ideas — the goal is to reach an acceptable document by “August or earlier.” Leading the U.S. negotiating team is Amb. Ryan C. Crocker. His principal liaison at the White House is a National Security Council staffer named Brett McGurk, a deputy to the so-called “war czar,” Gen. Douglas E. Lute.
In November, a spokesperson for the Maliki government told me that the Iraqi Parliament “definitely needs to approve” any long-term security deal. That might prove complicated, as the Parliament voted last year for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Alternatively, the need for Iraqi parliamentary ratification might provide an incentive for the accord to be vague and generic — both to mollify the Iraqi Parliament and to circumvent the U.S. Senate. “We don’t think those security guarantees will be a part of this,” said the NSC official. “Should they ultimately be, we have an obligation to bring that forward in the form of a treaty” to Congress.
Yet the question of whether the accord will offer an actual guarantee for the United States to defend Iraq in the event of an attack from one of its neighbors — or, the more likely case, of internal subversion — is almost certain to be a sticking point in the negotiations. On Mar. 4, Satterfield told a House subcommittee that while the U.S. would not guarantee in the accord to defend Iraq, “the administration would have to consider, in consultation with the Congress, what would be the best measures to take in defense of the United States’ interests.”
But from the Iraqi perspective, the idea of tens of thousands of U.S. troops standing idle while Iraq is under attack is unacceptable. Last month, Samir Sumaida’ie, the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S., said that as long as Iraq’s security forces remain weak, “We also don’t want to be the victim of attacks from our neighbors. During this time we believe the United States has a moral obligation to protect us.”
Some observers believe that the administration’s desire to avoid Senate rejection will provide the ultimate check on any specific guarantees to the Iraqis. “They do not want to face congress on this one,” said Ned S. Walker, a former ambassador to Middle Eastern countries and former assistant secretary of state under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “So the administration’s agreement will take care of the status of [U.S. military] forces but not bind the U.S. to a specific troop level. Like any new administration, a Democrat would feel free to change course. But they will be bound by the practicalities of the situation in Iraq.”
Those practicalities could lead U.S. policy in unexpected directions. For a Democratic administration to say that it will not honor an accord pushed by a lame-duck president, and not submitted for Senate approval, could lead the Iraqis to think that they are not dealing with good-faith interlocutors — thereby complicating that administration’s ability to broker Iraqi political compromise.
On the other hand, the Iraqis might alternatively recognize that they have little choice but to acquiesce, since U.S. troops guarantee the safety of Iraqi politicians. It’s hard to predict the outcome, said Ilan Goldenberg, the executive director of the liberal National Security Network. “We still have a ton of leverage with the Iraqis even after we rip that document up,” Goldenberg said. “It’s still our forces in there. And [the Iraqis] still have a lot of leverage with us. So it could go one of two ways. [They] react and say, ‘OK, this really isn’t the Bush administration, things will be run much differently,’ and that forces you think more carefully about a post-U.S. Iraq. Or it causes you to feel that, in the whole situation, you can’t trust the new administration.”
Perhaps the key to unlocking that problem is whether the Iraqis believe that the accord obligates the U.S. to protect them, even if the actual text of the document doesn’t say so. Asked about that potential discrepancy — and its implications for extricating the U.S. from Iraq — the NSC official said that such questions were premature. “We’re at the very, very early stages,” the official said. “We’re approaching this from a particular perspective, and they are, too. So you’ve got to meld the two of those.” He added that the negotiations will necessarily include “back and forth, an ebb and flow. But that’s not taking place yet.”
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