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Maliki Comments a Blow to McCain

Maliki.jpg
Maliki.jpg

Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (AP Photo)

For five years, the reasoning behind the U.S. occupation of Iraq has been that the Iraqi government believes that a U.S. military presence is needed to bring stability to the war-ravaged nation. Popular sentiment in Iraq may run heavily against the American presence — as it does in the U.S. — but as long as the Iraqi leadership, brought to power through elections regularly praised by the Bush administration, did not call for a U.S. withdrawal, the administration had a pretext for staying. For five years, that has been a safe bet: after all, three successive Iraqi prime ministers have been the beneficiary of U.S. protection.

On Saturday, everything changed.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, “U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.” Within hours, U.S. Central Command — at the behest of a clearly worried White Housereleased a statement arguing that Maliki was misquoted through a botched translation. But Monday, Maliki’s spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said that the government was talking about “a timetable which Iraqis set.” Asked when that timetable would run out, Dabbagh quickly specified, “2010.”

As a result, the positions on Iraq of the Bush administration, the U.S. military and Sen. John McCain, the presumed GOP presidential nominee, now face numerous challenges. The administration’s plans for a permanent U.S. presence in Iraq have been profoundly undermined. The military will have to adjust to a strategy of extrication. The McCain campaign is presented with one of its nightmare scenarios: the Iraqi premier embracing the judgment of its opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, which strengthens Obama’s bona fides on a national-security issue McCain has largely staked his presidential bid on owning.

“McCain keeps stressing the need to craft strategy with input from those with on-the-ground information,” said Charles Kupchan, an international-relations professor at Georgetown University. “The prime minister of Iraq certainly qualifies.”

“I’ve said all along that Cheney and Bush made a fundamental decision almost two years ago, when they hadn’t a clue what to do on Iraq, to pass it on to the next administration,” added Larry Wilkerson, chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell during Bush’s first term, said in a Monday phone call, “and hide behind the skirts of David Petraeus. That has not changed.” It might be the only thing.

For the Bush administration, Maliki’s embrace of what is essentially the Democratic position on Iraq collapses four years of intense effort to portray timetables for withdrawal as irresponsible, unforced defeats with dire humanitarian consequences. In an August 2007 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President George W. Bush, for the first time, explicitly compared Iraq to Vietnam. “One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields,’” Bush said. “If we were to abandon the Iraqi people, the terrorists would be emboldened, and use their victory to gain new recruits. As we saw on September the 11th, a terrorist safe haven on the other side of the world can bring death and destruction to the streets of our own cities.”

Yet Maliki, whose population would bear the brunt of the apocalypse Bush envisioned — as he would, personally, for collaborating with the Americans — has rejected that argument. Since November, Bush attempted to strong-arm the Iraqi premier into signing an agreement codifying an open-ended U.S. occupation. But on Friday, he conceded defeat in the face of massive Iraqi political opposition, even to the point of grudgingly embracing a “time-horizon” for U.S. withdrawal that Maliki demanded.

Maliki’s political situation all but demanded that position, according to long-time Iraq watchers. “As a security focus has given way to a political focus, the extent to which you think about what the insurgency might do [in the wake of withdrawal] declines relative to how [occupation] weighs on other Iraqi political actors,” said Marc Lynch, a professor of political science at the George Washington University. Maliki evidently believes that the vociferous nature of the opposition to an enduring U.S. occupation, combined with the upcoming provincial elections, makes embracing a timetable for withdrawal the safe political bet, Lynch explained. “The provincial elections loom fairly large,” he said. “It’s pretty obvious that opposing a long-term agreement pays off pretty well politically, and supporting it doesn’t.”

Wilkerson agreed. “Maliki is assessing his own continuing in power,” he said. “With the [provincial] election coming up, he can’t be seen as pandering to America at all. It’s a combination of politics and strategic reality.”

Maliki’s decision also suggests a shift is in the works for the U.S. military. Under the leadership of the departing U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus and the coming U.S. commander Gen. Raymond Odierno, the military’s position in Iraq has been that troop reductions should come at their prerogative. “It depends on the conditions, depends on the mission set,” Petraeus told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Friday.

But now it also depends on the wishes of the Iraqi government, say military experts. “Odierno is going to have to oversee two things,” said Colin Kahl, a counterinsurgency expert at the Center for A New American Security and a member of the Obama campaign’s Iraq policy group. “One is a set of contingency plans for different paces of American redeployment. He’ll also be overseeing what the U.S. military calls ‘transition to overwatch’: to pull back taking the lead in combat and population-security missions to the Iraqi security forces.” He continued, “Keep in mind that the commander [in Iraq] is very much an interlocutor with Iraqi politicians. He’s gonna have to manage what will increasingly be a post-American world in Iraq. He’ll have to get concessions from Iraqis on hard political bargains in a context where American influence is declining. It’ll be a challenging year for Odierno in Iraq regardless of who his next commander-in-chief is.”

Jon Soltz, an Iraq veteran and co-founder of the veterans-advocacy group VoteVets, wasn’t sure that Maliki’s statement will make so much difference to Odierno. “Odierno is going to keep doing what he inherited, which is a better tactical strategy with less forces,” Soltz said in a series of instant-messages. “He won’t enjoy the forces [Petraeus] had. He doesn’t make policy, he executes it, despite what the Bush administration wants to admit. He will re-deploy when he gets the order from [Petraeus] who gets it from the [secretary of defense], who gets it from the [president].”

The more important consideration, Soltz said, is who wins the presidential election. And there, Maliki’s statement poses an enormous problem for John McCain. Within hours of the Der Spiegel interview being reported in the U.S. media, an anonymous GOP consultant and occasional McCain adviser, surely speaking for many on the right, told The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, “We’re fucked.”

And for good reason. McCain has all but predicated his campaign on the idea that Obama doesn’t understand national security. “Sen. Obama’s judgment on Iraq has been universally wrong,” McCain’s top foreign-policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, said on a morning conference call. (Scheunemann dodged a question from the Politico’s Ben Smith about whether that included the decision to invade, which Obama opposed and McCain supported.) That position is difficult to sustain when the U.S.’s principal political ally in Iraq embraces Obama’s position at the expense of McCain’s desire for a 100-year-or-longer occupation.

Yet McCain has decided to remain with a position that entails remaining in Iraq despite the expressed wishes of the Iraqi government. His campaign blogger, Michael Goldfarb, wrote on Monday that the Obama-Maliki withdrawal plan was “an unconditional timeline we reject not only as being dangerous but unfeasible.” In an interview Monday morning with Meredith Viera, McCain himself suggested that he knew what Maliki wanted better than Maliki himself did: “I have been there too many times. I’ve met too many times with him, and I know what they want.”

“It’s an opening that, hopefully, the Obama campaign will exploit to justify their stance,” said Stoltz, of VoteVets.

Kahl, who has a peripheral role advising Obama, agreed. “Most Americans are not looking for an enduring, permanent presence in Iraq,” he said. “McCain’s 100 years comment — what he meant was a Korea-style presence — [and] 20,000 or 30,000 troops have been in Korea for…50 years — so I don’t think most Americans want that. I think they want some sense of responsible withdrawal sooner rather than later. The remarks out of Iraq probably means that [Iraqis] are increasingly comfortable with Obama’s policy.”

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