Those SOFA-Schlepping Iraqis

In one of last week’s posts (“Schlepping toward the Center”), I described the process by which the Obama and McCain positions on Iraq were moving toward one another. This week, it is the Iraqis’ turn to join the parade.

Two pronouncements by the Iraqis in the last two days demonstrate their ability to master the schlepping game. In a widely reported statement on July 8, Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwaffak al-Rubaie repeated Iraq’s reluctance to enter into a new open-ended Status of Forces Agreement with the United States. “We will not accept any memorandum of understanding that does not have specific dates to withdraw foreign forces from Iraq.” Sounds like they are going to force the US to leave at the end of the year, doesn’t it? Score one for Obama?

Not so fast. They may want the US to leave, but maybe not right away. In a statement released July 9, 2008, “Iraqi spokesman” Ali al-Dabbagh issued a clarifying schlep that moved the Iraqis back toward the McCain move to the center: The pullout, he said, “could be 2011 or 2012, We don’t have a specific date in mind, but we do need to agree on setting a deadline.”

The United States was quick to pick up on this Iraqi move toward the American center. Lt. General James Dubik, US Army commander in charge of training the Iraqi army, announced that training could be completed in 2009 “as early as April. Could be as late as August.” Once that army is trained to its projected strength of about 565,000, it presumably can take over responsibility for more and more Iraqi provinces’ security, which in turn triggers the withdrawal process Obama advertises. It does not, however, mean everyone can come home (or move one country over to Iran, or two countries over to Afghanistan), because there will be residual needs such as intelligence provision, air cover, and special forces missions by the Americans (which sounds remarkably like US actions in Vietnam in 1972 in Vietnam under the policy of Vietnamization).

The net result of all this, of course, is mostly to show the Iraqis are learning thedir American electoral politics. Simply refusing to negotiate some form of new SOFA would undercut the McCain position of staying until there is victory. Since McCain might win, that’s bad American politics for the Iraqis. At the same time, negotiating a long-term presence for the Americans in a new SOFA is bad politics two ways. First, it antaonizes the vast majority of Iraqis who want the US to leave. Second, since Obama may win (possibly probably will win), such an agreement would leave the appearance of tying the hands of the new administration, which would not endear the Iraqis to that regime.

How do the Iraqis solve their problem? They join the schlepping toward the middle. And it could well work. As Andrew Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is quoted in todays’s Washington Post, “If they can establish a clar schedule for withdrawal, it is probably a schedule the next president will accept.” That schedule, of course, could be dateless, with figures to be added later.

Source: Tyson, Ann Scott, and Dan Eggen. “U.S. General: Iraq Forces to Be Ready in ’09.” Washington Post, July 9, 2008, Aii.

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