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