Maliki Running Out Bush's Clock

[ Posted Tuesday, October 14th, 2008 – 15:33 UTC ]

I've been saying for a while now that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki holds the upper hand in the game of "chicken" he's playing with George Bush over negotiating a Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) for American troops to legally stay in Iraq past the first of next year. Now it appears both sides are pretty close to admitting that there will be no agreement, and that they had better start talking about some sort of short-term arrangement, which would allow whoever America's next president is to take over the negotiating table.

Maliki, through all of this, has proved to be nobody's fool. He knows what is going on politically in America, and pretty much everything that has happened this year has strengthened his bargaining position. George Bush's approval ratings are now officially worse than Nixon's ever were. His disapproval rating is the highest ever recorded. And the U.S. election is three weeks away.

The Washington Post reports on this today, with a nice timeline of how we got here (the whole article is worth reading for those interested):

The Iraqi prime minister in August twice assured Bush -- once personally via videoconference and again through Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a visit to Baghdad -- that the deal was done, Iraqi and U.S. officials said. Since midsummer, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has made repeated public statements confirming agreement on a draft.

The prospect that no deal would be reached, or that negotiations would come so close to the wire, was unthinkable when talks began in March, four months after Bush and Maliki signed a declaration of principles outlining a future U.S. military presence in Iraq. The declaration set a deadline of July 31.

The discussions began badly, with Iraqi negotiators rejecting an initial administration draft. The insistence of the United States on retaining complete command over its military operations and detention of Iraqi citizens, as well as control over borders and airspace, was a "dead end," Maliki said.

When the stalemate continued through May, Bush ordered U.S. negotiators to show more flexibility, and compromises were quickly reached giving Iraqis at least some say in U.S. operations and detentions. Joint control of airspace -- recognizing that Iraq was not yet capable of handling it alone and that U.S. controllers needed to be in charge of U.S. military aircraft -- was also worked out.

Disagreement then centered on a timeline for U.S. withdrawal. Maliki said that the end of 2010 was a reasonable goal, a public statement that appeared more consistent with the position of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama -- who has called for an even earlier withdrawal -- than that of Republican Sen. John McCain, who has opposed a firm timeline.

During Rice's Aug. 21 visit to Baghdad, the two sides agreed on withdrawal of combat forces by the end of 2011. But U.S. officials continue to speak of an "aspirational" date depending on ground conditions, while Maliki said Saturday that the agreement is for "final withdrawal by the end of 2011." Both have said that U.S. combat troops will be drawn back from Iraqi cities by mid-2009.

Having no agreement, though, is not really an option, because of what would happen:

If the parliament refuses, Maliki would have "no choice" but to request a U.N. extension "because the American forces will lose their legal cover on Dec. 31," he told the Times of London in a weekend interview. "If that happens, according to international law, Iraqi law and American law, the U.S. forces will be confined to their bases and have to withdraw from Iraq," Maliki said.

U.S. officials do not dispute that the absence of an agreement would probably require an immediate end to combat operations and, at a minimum, confinement to bases on Jan. 1. Officials refused to discuss the sensitive issue on the record while negotiations are ongoing.

Which leaves Bush between a rock and a hard place:

Neither side finds the options attractive. One possibility is an extension of the United Nations mandate that expires at the end of the year. That would require a Security Council vote that both governments believe could be complicated by Russia or others opposed to the U.S.-led war. Another alternative would amount to a simple handshake agreement between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Bush to leave things as they are until a new deal, under a new U.S. administration, can be negotiated.

Meaning that, one way or another, it may be President Obama who negotiates the future of Iraq (assuming Obama wins, of course). And that may be good news indeed.


-- Chris Weigant


3 Comments on “Maliki Running Out Bush's Clock”

  1. [1] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Bush has discovered what Reagan learned from Iran-Contra: that the region belongs to used-carpet salesmen with infinite patience and inscrutable business strategems. Bush the Elder learned this lesson and applied it well in the Gulf War. His Oedipal son, disdaining all input from paterfamilias, ignored this reality to his detriment -- and ours.

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    This is what happens when there is no presidential leadership emanating from the White House. This is extremely painful to watch.

    All I hope for now is that the Bush administration and Prime Minister Maliki can continue treading water long enough to keep a lid on the tinder box that is Iraq until Obama gets elected...and Biden can spearhead the implementation of his strategy to promote and facilitate a sustainable political settlement among the warring Iraqi factions.

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    I have to admit, the idealism expressed here is refreshing.

    However, I would inject a note of realism and caution. Many heady pronouncements preceded Democrats taking control of Congress in 2006..

    "NOW we will do some good things" and "NOW things will be different" and "NOW those dirtbag Republicans are going to pay" etc etc etc..

    And, if one is objective, one must concede that the reality fell far FAR short of the expectations.


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