Maliki's Leverage Over Bush

[ Posted Monday, September 8th, 2008 – 12:22 UTC ]

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki seems to have the upper hand in the ongoing negotiations with the Bush administration. The talks continue, in an attempt to hammer out an agreement for U.S. troops to operate in Iraq after the United Nations framework expires at the end of this year. Upon reflection, it's easy to see why Maliki is getting stronger in this diplomatic tug-of-war, and Bush is getting weaker -- because the clock is running out on Bush, and because Bush's domestic popularity continues to fall while Maliki is using the international media to boost his own popularity with the voters in Iraq.

A quick review of how Bush and Maliki got to where they currently are is necessary to understand the dynamics of the diplomatic game of "chicken" they are playing. Last year, Maliki and Bush announced that they were going to enter negotiations for two agreements (for simplicity's sake, these are jointly referred to here as a "Status Of Forces Agreement" or "SOFA") which would create a legal framework for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq after the U.N. mandate expires at the end of 2008. Both sides agreed that they wanted a bilateral agreement to move beyond that point, and that continuing the U.N. status quo wasn't the best way to go.

Bush, at this time, asserted that he didn't need the Senate to vote on such an agreement, since (by his definition) it isn't a "treaty." Democrats in the Senate don't exactly agree with this assessment, but that is a side issue here. The draft SOFA was supposed to be finalized by the end of July, which would give the Iraqi Parliament time enough to debate and approve it by the end of this year.

But a few months before this deadline, the Iraqis decided their best chance of getting what they wanted was to leak the details to the world's press of what Bush was demanding. So far, this has worked out spectacularly well for them. They started this around the beginning of June, by leaking a list of the outlandish negotiating positions which the Americans were taking.

The Iraqis, predictably, were not amused.

By mid-July, Bush had pulled back on some of the demands, but not far enough to please the Iraqis.

As I wrote then:

Originally, Bush wanted 200 American military bases in Iraq. This number was scaled back to 58, which the Iraqis still considered way too many. The U.S. was also demanding to hold any Iraqis it captured without sending them through the Iraqi court system. We demanded immunity from the Iraqi court system not only for our military, but also for security contractors in Iraq (such as Blackwater). We demanded control over Iraqi airspace, and the right to refuel planes over Iraq without the consent or control of the Iraqis themselves. The American military in Iraq would not have to consult or get approval for any actions taken in Iraq from the Iraq government or military. The terms of this agreement were to be open-ended and permanent, and could only be changed after a two-year waiting period (which would lock the next president in for half his term). And, of course, there would be no talk of a timetable or any other date for withdrawal of American troops.

The Iraqis, understandably, balked. By taking the case to their own people (by leaking to the press), they insured that such an agreement would never be approved by the two-thirds parliamentary majority their constitution demanded. One of the members of Iraq's foreign relations committee close to Maliki was quoted at the time by the Washington Post with his reaction: "The Americans are making demands that would lead to the colonization of Iraq. If we can't reach a fair agreement, many people think we should say, 'Goodbye, U.S. troops. We don't need you here anymore.' "

At this point, Bush backed down significantly. The wordsmiths in the White House tried to spin what appeared to be an enormous concession -- Maliki and the Iraqis wanted a definite date for American troops to be out of Iraq (something Bush has resisted and even ridiculed for years now). Bush decided to try out some fancy language, so he wouldn't have to say the dreaded word "timetable." He called for an "aspirational goal" of setting a "time horizon."

Nobody was fooled by this, it is worth pointing out.

Maliki's position at this point had gotten stronger. He had won significant concessions, and there seemed to be but two sticking points left -- when the American troops would leave, and whether they would be covered by Iraqi law or American military law (or, in the case of our mercenaries... oops, I mean "security contractors" of course... the lack thereof). At the time, Maliki was reportedly offering a timetable for American combat troops to be gone from Iraq by the end of 2010, and all other American forces to withdraw completely by 2013. He was willing to compromise on the immunity, giving American troops immunity when they were performing a combat mission, but when they were off-duty wanted Iraqi law to cover them.

The important thing for Bush at this point was to avoid the word "timetable" like the plague. He put the screws to Maliki, and for a few weeks, Maliki did indeed indicate that the Americans could play whatever language games they wanted to (he even started using the term "time horizon" for a short period), since all Iraqis knew the real score -- that they were setting a date for American troops to get out.

Time wore on, and no agreement appeared. Maliki even stopped using "time horizon" and went back to saying "timetable."

Then Maliki's people let it be known that they were pretty much on board with how Barack Obama saw the future in Iraq. Obama has been pushing for all combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of his taking office. The Iraqis were talking about a very similar timetable, and indicated the latest date they would accept would be the end of 2010, but that they'd much prefer the earlier date Obama was talking about.

Well, this enraged the Bush team, as you can imagine. George W. Bush didn't want to be seen as endorsing Barack Obama's plan for withdrawal from Iraq in any way, shape, or form. So they pushed back hard against the Iraqis to change this date to 2011 -- which would be far enough out that they could still claim Obama's 16-month withdrawal was "reckless" or "precipitate."

But Maliki upped the ante at this point, something the American media has pretty much flat-out ignored. Maliki countered with a proposal to start moving American troops out of Iraqi cities by the summer of 2009, while he agreed to the 2011 withdrawal timeline. With a big difference: 2011 was now to be the time not just for the withdrawal of American combat forces, but instead all American forces -- in essence, moving the timeline up two years from what was previously discussed.

Which brings us up to date. The negotiations are still in a stalemate, but Maliki holds all the cards (how's that for a mixed metaphor?). The Iraqi Parliament comes back from their summer recess this week (as does the American Congress), and if a draft of the agreement doesn't appear soon, there is just not going to be enough time to get it passed before the end of the year (remember, Maliki needs a two-thirds majority to get this past his Parliament). Maliki has used this issue (with the help of the media) to boost Iraqi nationalist feelings at home, in preparation for their own upcoming local elections. Maliki is seen as standing up strongly to the Americans, and not being their puppet. And time is running out. But, again, time is on Maliki's side.

Bush probably could have gotten a deal last week -- a deal that he wouldn't have liked, but a deal nonetheless. But now Maliki is in an even stronger position, due to the revelation (from Bob Woodward's new book) that Bush has been spying on Maliki all this time. Apparently, nothing that is said in Maliki's office is private from American ears.

This is a monstrous humiliation for Maliki, and for Iraqis in general. Imagine how we would feel if Maliki refused to deny that he had the Oval Office bugged. Most Americans would not be happy with that state of affairs (to put it mildly), and the Iraqis are just as incensed as we would be.

Which strengthens Maliki's hand domestically. Maliki can now give ultimatums to Bush -- take it or leave it -- and Bush can either accept or turn the entire thing over to his successor. Neither of which is going to be very palatable for him. Unless, perhaps, McCain wins the election.

There are two ways this could play out. The first is Maliki smiles and points to a calendar. The American election is less than two months away, and after that point Bush becomes officially a lame duck. If no agreement is reached, then they'll simply extend the U.N. agreement for six months or a year, and the Iraqis will deal with the next American administration. The second possible scenario is that Bush caves in, and gives Maliki what he wants in a desperate bid for his own continuing relevancy.

Either way, Maliki has the upper hand in this battle of wills. And every day that passes does nothing but strengthen his position.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


16 Comments on “Maliki's Leverage Over Bush”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    My hope is that the agreement is extended 6mths and the Iraqis focus on their own elections. Maliki shoud not wait to long to make a decision because the thing about leverage is that it has a way of disappearing if not applied correctly or at the right time.


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Lemme ask ya'all something..

    It's obvious ya'all are hoping for an agreement (or lack of) that totally destroys Bush et al...

    What would your opinion be if said agreement was also very bad for the USA?

    Would you hope for such an agreement, even if it's to the detriment of the US??


  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Prime Minister Maliki may have leverage over Bush - for all the reasons you outline and for some other reasons that don't need to be verbalized, much less written up!

    It's just too bad the political situation in Iraq is such that Maliki's authority over Iraq doesn't even extend to all of Baghdad, let alone throughout the rest of the country. And therein lies the problem if US troops are withdrawn - as they should and will be - in the absence of a sustainable political settlement among the many Iraqi factions which their neighbours can also buy into.

    You wanna talk about squandered opportunities of the Bush administration and those of a possible future McCain administration...let's not and say we did. :(

    You know what...that's what this election boils right down to! All those in favour of squandered opportunities, vote McCain/Palin!

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Hey Michale,

    I wouldn't be among those wishing for more destruction of the Bush administration. The President and most of his closest advisors have done such a good job of that already that I don't think the country - and the world, for that matter - could stand much more.

  5. [5] 
    Yeah right wrote:

    These war games that we are playing have an interesting way of never ending up the way we intended. As I previously stated Bush is going to get the credit for bringing the troops home just has his father did. Just because there is an agreement or lack of, nothing can totally destroy the Bush adminstration he did that along time ago. Officially lame duck. All presidents are lame ducks after the election unless they win and with this whirl-wind around Palin Bush might actually be in office for his third term. My suggestion: Palin is an extremist, driven by the desire for aboslute power. If the democrates want to win this term they have to find away to back her into a corner without making it look like they are beating up on her. My guest with the way she handle troopgate she will come out fighting and then people will see her for what she really is.

  6. [6] 
    loslobo wrote:


    Consider option three Maliki is "replaced"

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:


    I wouldn't be among those wishing for more destruction of the Bush administration. The President and most of his closest advisors have done such a good job of that already that I don't think the country - and the world, for that matter - could stand much more.

    Fair enough..

    My beef is the glee that some (present company excepted, of course) express with anything that appears to tear down Bush.

    I just don't think they realize another effect is that it weakens this country.

    Further, I don't think they care...

    And THAT is what is really sad....


  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I think you are absolutely right when it comes to a lot of people who attack the Bush administration no matter what policy the President pursues even when he chooses the wise course...which, I must hasten to add, occurs rarely and often belatedly...sorry...such is my level of frustration.

    Speaking of frustration...and apologies in advance to CW for veering off into this territory...I'm sure he won't mind, too much...

    Michale, I have a question for you about Stephen Zunes...I've noticed you have commented a few times on his (huffington) posts. I understand he doesn't appreciate people taking issue with his playing quick and loose with the facts - particularly regarding Iraq and the AUMF resolution and rather than engage in friendly debate he chooses instead to delete comments.

    Has this practice been your experience? I just want to know if I will be wasting my time with him by trying to set the record straight on these issues.


    I not

  9. [9] 
    Michale wrote:

    I think you are absolutely right when it comes to a lot of people who attack the Bush administration no matter what policy the President pursues even when he chooses the wise course…which, I must hasten to add, occurs rarely and often belatedly…sorry…such is my level of frustration.

    I think Bush is right a lot more often than he is given credit for. But at least you acknowledge that he sometimes DOES make the right calls. Many on here ( are the same way.

    But ya'all are the exception, rather than the rule..


    Michale, I have a question for you about Stephen Zunes…I've noticed you have commented a few times on his (huffington) posts. I understand he doesn't appreciate people taking issue with his playing quick and loose with the facts - particularly regarding Iraq and the AUMF resolution and rather than engage in friendly debate he chooses instead to delete comments.

    I tried to find those comments so I could establish the context, but couldn't...

    Do you have any links??


  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:

    Never mind.. I found it... :D

    I really have no experience dealing with Mr Zune himself. The others who commented on that particular thread seem to be of the variety that I mention above..

    But hay, if you got facts to refute his claims. Go for it! :D


  11. [11] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Well, Michale...

    I'll try again but I sure as heck don't have the time - or the inclination, to be very frank - to mess around with nonsense like this if my lengthy presentation of the facts is just going to get deleted.

    Though, I must say that I'm beginning to think of my growing number of HP deletions as little badges of honour!

  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:


    Yea, believe me I have great sympathies for you when it comes to HuffPo posts not being posted.

    I work on a great response for 20-30 minutes only to see it relegated to the trash bin. It's very frustrating.

    Which is one of the reasons I haven't been posting to HuffPo recently. The fact that I grossly misjudged NATO's response (such as it was) to the Russian invasion is another reason. :D

    So, I feel for ya. I haven't hit on a solution yet, other than to stick with CW's HuffPo posts. At least there, I get an even shake.. :D

    As to HuffPo deletions?? :D


    * Total Comments Made: 3237
    * Comments Deleted: 496
    * Comments to News: 213
    * Comments to Blog: 3024

    Beat THAT! :D

    But, the good news is, I DO have 21 "fans"... :D


  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Misery loves company, as they say - ain’t that the truth! Anyways...I cannot beat your profile, as far as comments go,

    *total comments made: 2712
    *comments deleted: 135
    *comments to news: 546
    *comments to blog: 2166

    However, I’ve got you beat in the fan department - 31 of ‘em! What can I say...sometimes there’s just no accounting for taste.

    And, you’re absolutely right about THIS great site - there is no better place for great and informed debate mixed with that special brand of humor that other sites would do well to emulate.

  14. [14] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    And that ain't no moose poop!

    Heh heh.

    Sorry, couldn't help myself...


  15. [15] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Ladies and Gentlemen...sorry...too many Biden speeches, of late...

    Now that's precisely what makes this site so darned special, y'all!

  16. [16] 
    Michale wrote:


    One thing I have noticed on HuffPo, but I am sure you picked up on it as well..

    The NEWS comments are usually not moderated. You can post a comment to a NEWS article and it is usually posted right aways. The DOWN side to that is it's usually difficult to carry on a reasonable debate, because comments come fast and furious..


    Even MORE so, I hope McCain/Palin do NOT win the General Election...

    I dunno if I can handle 4 years or 8 years or (gods forbid) SIXTEEN YEARS of Moose Poop jokes!! :D


Comments for this article are closed.