The SOFA and the Election
It was not supposed to work out this way. The Bush administration assumed that it was going to be able to tie the hands of its successor administration by negotiating a new Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqis that would, as noted in earlier posts, give the United States Iraqi acquiescence to a more or less indefinite stay by American forces on converted Iraqi bases all over the country and essentially immune from Iraqi legal or other jurisdiction. Along the way, the U.S. forces could even conceivably help make sure the Iraqis did not do anything untoward with their oil industry, like excluding American oil companies from the leases they will negotiate. A sweet deal that might allow achievement of Bush’s objectives in Iraq (whatever those are) and also mean that if Obama wins, he would have a hard time pulling out of the country.
But then the Bushies were outsmarted (hardly the first time that has happened). Their plans, of course, assumed the Iraqis would, Uncle Tom-like, accept what was clearly a much better deal if you are an American neo-con than if you are an Iraqi, To the absolute chagrin and apparent surprise of Americans from Bush to smiley Condy Rice, the Iraqis have said, “no thanks.” Since the agreement the U.S. seeks to extend is based in the expiration of a UN mandate, it is kind of hard to ignore. And al-Maliki and company know it. And so the administration is frantically backing and filling, acquiescing to the new realities while denying anything is new at all. Nice try guys!
What is rather clearly emerging from all this is a compromise that will affect the fall election. There will be no long-term SOFA on Bush’s watch; rather, there will be some sort of interim agreement that allows the Americans to remain beyond December 31 and for the new administration to get into the mix. The Iraqis have clearly learned about American lame ducks and would prefer to talk to the folks who will be in charge for the next four years rather than today’s caretakers. Now, the discussion has turned to timetables for American withdrawal. The Bush neo-cons, of course, refuse to use that particular “t-word”, so they are “time horizons,” but everyone knows what that means. But as if to twist the knife in George Bush’s back a little, al-Maliki said yesterday, as he was getting ready to go to the airport (figuratively, at least) to greet Obama landing in Baghdad, that he thought the Obama 16-month timetable sounded pretty good to him. John McCain cannot be happy with this turn of events.
Something like an agreement on the terms of the SOFA could turn the Iraq issue in the campaign. If al-Maliki embraces the Obama position during his visit, it is a tacit endorsement of Obama and rejection of McCain. Do the Iraqis have their own pollsters in the United States? If he continues to say that 16 months sounds like a pretty good timetable–er, time horizon–where does that leave McCain? Does he declare he thinks victory will be achieved in 16 months? By that time, Bush will be off cutting brush in Crawford and will probably not care. Obama, on the other hand, will have a hard time wipig the smile off his face.
Things can, of course, change. The SOFA problem will not go away, however, and the Bush administration has clearly shown it has no juice left to force, maybe even influence, the outcome. And so maybe the Iraqis will get to frame the major foreign policy issue of an American presidential campaign. The occupied dictating to the occupiers? Wow.