The end of the American military's involvement in Iraq is almost upon us. Someone in the White House recently leaked what should have been apparent to everyone all along -- that the Pentagon is preparing to withdraw all our remaining troops from Iraq, by the end of this year. Less than 200 will remain, to guard the embassy, but all our other brave men and women in uniform will be home to celebrate the dawning of a new year.
This story broke over the weekend, but not much attention has been given to it by the media as yet. The Associated Press reported: "...a senior Obama administration official in Washington confirmed Saturday that all American troops will leave Iraq except for about 160 active-duty soldiers attached to the U.S. Embassy."
This should not be surprising news to anyone. Just before President George W. Bush left office, he signed a Status Of Forces Agreement (S.O.F.A.) with Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki of Iraq. This agreement contains the key sentence: "All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011." Which is exactly where we find ourselves now.
When Bush turned the Oval Office over to President Barack Obama -- one month after Bush signed the S.O.F.A. -- America had close to 150,000 soldiers in Iraq. Obama has hit two milestones since then -- one imposed by the S.O.F.A., and one he imposed for himself. First, the S.O.F.A. dictated that all American troops pull back from Iraqi cities. Then Obama withdrew roughly 100,000 troops on a schedule of his own, which left over 40,000 troops still in Iraq. In two and a half months, all of these troops will come home as well.
Of course, not everybody's happy about this. The Pentagon would really like to keep American soldiers there longer -- they've been pushing to keep over 10,000 troops in Iraq past the withdrawal deadline. The White House reportedly was trying for a more modest force of around 3,000. But what the American media can't seem to wrap their minds around is the basic fact that this is not our decision to make. This is -- and always has been -- a decision for the Iraqi government to make. And all signs point to them having already made the decision: all U.S. troops will leave on schedule, as planned.
America always needs a formal agreement to station her troops in any friendly country. These agreements cover all sorts of details, but the key part in the Iraqi S.O.F.A. is that U.S. troops are immune from local law. Soldiers can't be hauled in to an Iraqi court, in other words. This may be the sticking point for Iraq, and why they are refusing to sign a new S.O.F.A. now, which would allow some U.S. troops to remain longer than the end of this year.
Or it may just be an convenient excuse for the Iraqis to get all U.S. troops out of their country. Most American media reporting on the question of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq has focused on the politics between the White House and the Pentagon, or between the White House and Congress, or even between our political parties. This is the wrong political question to focus on. The real politics which are determining the outcome are Iraqi politics -- because, remember, it is the Iraqi government who gets to decide this question, and not us.
Prime Minister Maliki recently survived a very close election. The two largest Iraqi political parties split the vote almost evenly. But neither had enough power to form a government on their own. So Maliki convinced Muqtada Al Sadr's party to join with his, preserving Maliki's job as the country's leader. But the Sadrists are rock-solid on the question of U.S. troops leaving. They are not going to support any new agreement at all. Leaving Maliki without the political support to even negotiate for an extension of American troops. Which is where we are currently. The White House and the Pentagon have been trying to pressure Maliki to get some sort of agreement passed -- the White House's offer of only 3,000 troops as opposed to over 10,000 was likely a ploy to make the idea more palatable to the Iraqis. In fact, the leaking of the news this weekend that the Pentagon is preparing a full withdrawal may also be a way of pressuring Maliki, as well: "If you don't act, then we're not going to be around much longer."
Muqtada Al Sadr, however, isn't having any of it. His name always appears in U.S. media with a prefix: "the anti-American cleric Muqtada Al Sadr." It's more likely that the Republicans in the U.S. Congress suddenly support a big tax hike than Sadr supporting U.S. troops in his country one day longer than previously agreed.
All America can do, at this point, is to beg the Iraqis to come together and put aside their political differences, and do what we want them to do. The only problem with that is, we're not exactly the poster child for the rest of the world these days when it comes to putting aside political differences, are we?
Iraq faces serious problems if all American soldiers withdraw in a few months' time. There are still sectarian and ethnic hatreds which lie just beneath the surface. The Kurds, in particular, would really like to see some U.S. soldiers stay on. The Iraqi air force and navy are in a fragile and nascent state, and they could still use our help on the technical front.
But the symbolism may be too powerful for the Iraqis to make such considerations. They've had our troops occupying their country for over eight years now, and they are ready to see us go, to put it mildly. How would we feel if foreign troops were on U.S. soil, after all? We'd want to see them leave as well, wouldn't we?
Don't look for those questions to ever be asked in the next few months, however. The American media will look for familiar American political themes in the story of American troops coming home. Those clamoring for staying longer will decry President Obama for not doing so -- even though the real credit (or blame, take your choice) for the hard withdrawal date lies with President Bush. Republicans will attempt to make this a political issue, especially if violence breaks out in Iraq after we leave. Republicans will waste no time in saying "See, we told you we needed to stay longer!" Democrats, on the other hand, may finally give Obama some credit for ending one of America's wars, as he promised to do on the campaign trail -- again, even though Bush was the true instigator of this timeline. Democrats will taunt Republicans with: "Obama is bringing the deficit under control by ending a very expensive war, just as he promised he'd do."
But the man who deserves the real credit (or blame, if you wish) for the timing of America's exit is none other than Prime Minister Maliki. Bush initially was pushing for all sorts of clauses in the S.O.F.A. (remember, during the 2008 campaign, Republicans were stating that a "timetable for withdrawal" would be the worst possible thing America could do) which would have allowed America to essentially do whatever it wished. Maliki firmly told Bush: "No," and then dictated his own terms. Eventually, with the clock running out, Bush caved on almost every single one of Maliki's demands. One of which was the deadline we are about to face.
Maliki has been the most powerful player in this diplomatic negotiation from the very beginning. So, although the American media will likely gloss over this fact, Maliki is the one who will deserve whatever credit or blame there is. American anti-war types can thank Maliki for ending the war on schedule (although both Obama and Bush certainly deserve some credit, as well). Neo-conservatives and other war hawks should pin the blame on Maliki as well. Because no matter what the politics are in Washington, it is the politics in Baghdad which have dictated the final outcome. Because, once again, the timing of the end of the Iraq War is simply not ours to make. It is up to the sovereign government of Iraq -- and they have made it pretty clear that we're not going to be welcome past New Year's Eve. Our costly venture is almost over, and there's nothing we can do to change the schedule any more. The end of the Iraq War is in sight.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant