Iraq End Game and the Election

Remember when the main issue in the 2008 Presidential election was the Iraq War? When was the last time you heard the war raised recently in the campaign, except in McCain commercials boasting the prescience of his support for the surge? What happened?

The main thing that happened, of course, was the domestic economic crisis. It is virtually an axiom of American politics that the only time a foreign policy issue can dominate an election is if there is no significant domestic issue to overshadow it: domestic concerns trump foreign policy concerns. But in the case of Iraq, there is more to it than that.

Part of the answer is that the positions of the two political parties have moved closer together on Iraq, a dynamic I discussed earlier under the category of “schlepping”. The issue in Iraq has narrowed; it is no longer whether the United States will withdraw, it is when. The surge has succeeded (whatever that means), but no one talks of (or certainly does not define) victory. Both sides agree it would be better to reallocate military resources to Afghanistan. The edges of the debate have lost all their clarity.

This does not mean there are not remaining issues to be decided before the United States leaves Iraq. There are two major questions, each of which requires some interpretation. Both are part of the negotiations over a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Iraq and the United States.

The first, of course, is how long the United States will stay or be allowed to stay. The two sides of this debate are whether to set a firm withdrawal date, a position favored by Obama and the Iraqis, or whether to remain flexible on leaving, a position favored by McCain. In all likelihood, the withdrawal date that will emerge from ongoing negotiations will specify a target of 2010 for the removal of the last American combat forces. The question is what will activate or disengage that process.

The handover of command in Iraq from David Petraeus to Roy Odierno laid out the parameters. Petraeus, in effect, said the situation is improving (which means that some troops can be withdrawn), but that the situation remains fragile (meaning it would be unwise to commit to a withdrawal timetable, since the situation could deteriorate). It is not clear the McCain campaign wrote this scenario; they certainly were supportive of it. No one, however, is suggesting that the withdrawal will come after some “enemy” surrenders and one can really declare “mission accomplished.”

The major sticking point in negotiations has been over the status of American forces and civilians regarding Iraqi law and legal jurisdiction.  The Iraqis argue that the Americans should be accountable to the Iraqi legal system for alleged transgressions, basing their arguments in Iraqi sovereignty (that it is their country). Moreover, it would be political suicide for al-Maliki or any other Iraqi politician to argue anything less. The Americans counter that American forces and civilians should be exempt from Iraqi law and instead be governed by American rules and enforcement mechanisms. The reasons include the historic American aversion to aving its forces not completely under its control and the fear the Iraqis might use legal jurisdiction as a way to harass Americans.

The rough translation of this issue is that neither side trusts the other. The Iraqis allege (not without some basis) that the Americans have abused Iraqis and broken Iraqi laws in the past and that their insistence on not being subject to Iraqi law is just a way to allow them to continue those abuses. Abu Ghraib comes to mind as an example. The Americans fear retribution for alleged past excesses. Would, for instance, the Iraqis insist on prosecuting the next American pilots whose bombs miss their targets and kill civilians? Both sides probably have a point in not entirely trusting the other.

The Iraqis havebecome intransigent on the jurisdiction issue, and they are unlikely to reach an agreement (epecially a compromise where they give up something) with the lame duck Bush administration. Settling that issue will be a problem for the new administration.

Will we hear much more about all this between now and November 5? Probably not, unless one of two unlikely things happen. One would be a miraculous turnaround of the U.S. economy that would move domestic concerns down the issue agenda. The oher would be a dramatic change (probably deterioration) in the situation in Iraq itself. Barring one of those things happen, the recollection that Iraq would dominate the 2008 election campaign will be nothing more than a nostalgic memory.

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