Do you remember the old Abbott and Costello routine—“Who’s on first, What’s on second, and I Don’t Know is on third”? That’s what came to mind as I tried to sort out what’s going on in Baghdad and Washington. Things are rarely as they seem in Iraq, or in that country’s relations with the United States. Based on a number of reports published yesterday, things are not going well. But those reports depend on understanding the Bush administration’s plan five years ago to get a long-term strategic agreement with the Iraqi government.
Five months ago, on January 12, Michael Hirsh filed this report:
In remarks to the traveling press, delivered from the Third Army operation command center here, Bush said that negotiations were about to begin on a long-term strategic partnership with the Iraqi government modeled on the accords the United States has with Kuwait and many other countries. Crocker, who flew in from Baghdad with Petraeus to meet with the president, elaborated: "We're putting our team together now, making preparations in Washington," he told reporters. "The Iraqis are doing the same. And in the few weeks ahead, we would expect to get together to start this negotiating process." The target date for concluding the agreement is July, says Gen. Doug Lute, Bush's Iraq coordinator in the White House—in other words, just in time for the Democratic and Republican national conventions.Why do we need such an agreement? We didn’t seem to think we needed one when we invaded Iraq over five years ago. But once we handed over power to the newly elected government of Iraq the Bush administration found it convenient to have the blessing of the United Nations. So on June 8, 2004, the UN Security Council approved resolution 1546, endorsing the formation of the interim government, welcoming “the end of the occupation and the prospect of elections in January 2005.”
It also reaffirms the authorization for the multinational force under unified command established under resolution 1511 (2003) and decides that the multinational force shall have the authority to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq in accordance with the Iraqi request for the continued presence of the multinational force.The UN resolution has been renewed in more or less the same language for each year since, but the legitimation of international occupying forces in Iraq expires at the end 2008.
Rather than get another extension of the UN resolution, which might prove troublesome, the Bush administration chose to negotiate a “status of forces” agreement directly with Iraq, analagous to ones the U.S. has with South Korea, Germany, and Japan. Five months ago, Hirsh saw clearly what was at stake in such an agreement. No wonder his article was titled “Sorry, Barack, You’ve Lost Iraq.”
Most significant of all, the new partnership deal with Iraq, including a status of forces agreement that would then replace the existing Security Council mandate authorizing the presence of the U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq, will become a sworn obligation for the next president. It will become just another piece of the complex global security framework involving a hundred or so countries with which Washington now has bilateral defense or security cooperation agreements. Last month, Sen. Hillary Clinton urged Bush not to commit to any such agreement without congressional approval. The president said nothing about that on Saturday, but Lute said last fall that the Iraqi agreement would not likely rise to the level of a formal treaty requiring Senate ratification. Even so, it would be difficult if not impossible for future presidents to unilaterally breach such a pact.Five months later (yesterday), the New York Times editorialized:
President Bush has made clear that he plans to keep American troops in Iraq for as long as he is in office. But this deal appears to be an especially cynical attempt to tie his successor to his failed Iraq policy.(bold mine)What the Bush administration can’t win in public support for the war, it is trying to win with an agreement flying beneath the need for Senate ratification but which would significantly hamper a new administration’s determination to extricate the U.S. from Iraq.
Alas, things are not going well for this made-in-Crawford plan, and the unlikely trouble-maker is none other than the Iraqi Prime Minister.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki raised the possibility Friday that his country won't sign a status of forces agreement with the United States and that it will ask U.S. troops to go home when their United Nations mandate to be in Iraq expires at the end of the year.In the first proposal the U.S. made, there were at least three things that caught the eye and raised the ire of the Iraqis (the U.S. has not made public its proposal):
Al-Maliki's comment came after weeks of complaints from Shi'ite Muslim lawmakers that U.S. proposals for a continued troop presence would infringe on Iraq's sovereignty.
"Iraq has another option that it may use," al-Maliki said during a visit to Amman, Jordan. "The Iraqi government, if it wants, has the right to demand that the UN terminate the presence of international forces on Iraqi sovereign soil."
What could possibly have come between the U.S. and its staunch ally, partner in democratizing the Middle East, and client?
Earlier, al-Maliki said talks with the United States on a status of forces agreement "reached an impasse" after U.S. negotiators presented a draft that would have given the United States access to 58 military bases, control of Iraqi airspace and immunity from prosecution for U.S. troops and private contractors.Read them carefully: long-term access to 58 military bases; control of Iraqi airspace, and immunity prosecution for U.S. troops and private contractors. Oh yes; there was one more thing: freedom for the U.S. to unilaterally initiate military actions against Iraqis without consultation with the Iraqi.
I don’t see what the Iraqis could possibly complain about because when Bush announced that Iraq was a sovereign nation the Iraqi’s suggest that he really didn’t mean sovereign. If the Bush administration doesn’t remember history, the Iraqis and the other Middle Eastern peoples do. The proposed arrangements appear to be straight out of the colonial era’s extra-territorial arrangements which gave the colonial powers unfettered authority in the colonies. Despite the Bush administration claims over the past few weeks that it has not been pressuring the Iraqis for an indefinite military presence in the country, documents recently declassified under the Freedom of Information act show that since November 2003 the administration has been seeking an agreement that would guarantee a permanent unfettered military presence in Iraq.
“When it developed its initial plans for a security pact, the U.S. wanted virtually unlimited freedom of action for its forces--including private contractors," said Archive analyst Joyce Battle. "In addition to freedom to wage military operations as it saw fit--and to arrest, detain, and interrogate Iraqis at will--U.S. demands even extended to priority use of public utilities. This was after the invasion had led to the collapse of Iraq's already fragile infrastructure and Iraqi civilians--old and young, healthy, sick, and disabled--were getting by with a few hours of electricity a day--if they were lucky."Surprise! Surprise! The Iraqis are complaining.
The Iraqis rejected those demands, and U.S. diplomats have submitted a second draft, which Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said included several concessions.The removal of immunity for “security contractors” (read Hessians, hired guns or soldiers of fortune not under the control of the military because the Bush administration cannot recruit enough soldiers into the armed services to fight his war and who are paid far more than the paltry salaries of U.S. soldiers) may be problematic.
Among them would be allowing Iraq to prosecute contractors for violations of Iraqi law and a requirement that U.S. forces turn over to Iraqi authorities any Iraqis the Americans detain.
Salih said the government wants to reach an agreement but that Iraq wouldn't be pressured into accepting terms that compromised its rights.
"Our American allies need to understand and realize that this agreement must be respectful of Iraqi sovereignty," Salih said.
Al-Maliki indicated that officials on both sides wanted an agreement. "Negotiations will continue," he said, "by adding new ideas from Plans A, then B, then C, until we reach the decision that ensures the sovereignty of Iraq."
The change is sure to prove controversial, because security contractors will be reluctant to continue to work in Iraq’s dangerous environment if they can be prosecuted in Iraqi courts.Count on the Bush administration to find some way to work around this. Also, count on their finding a way to come to terms with the Iraqi government. President Bush was heard to say over the weekend that if he were a betting man, he would bet on an agreement.
Maybe! But there is another ingredient to put into this already confusing mix—Iran. Pro-Iran Shiites in Iraq are opposed to the deal, as is Iran itself.
Iran has led a vocal campaign against the deal, with powerful former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani vowing last week that people in Iraq and the region won't allow it. That has led to U.S. accusations that Tehran is actively trying to scuttle the agreement — putting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government in a tight spot between two rival allies.Over the last few days, the Iraqi Prime Minister has been reassuring Iran, promising that Iraq will not be a launching pad for any attack on Iran. One might look at al-Maliki’s dilemma from two different but not unrelated perspectives. On the one hand, he may not want to offend Iran because it is Iraq’s old enemy. On the other hand, he may see that Iraq’s long-term interests lie more with Iran than with the U.S. And that probably worries President Bush if he’s gotten past “Who’s on first”.
The proposed agreement is an albatross that will hang around the neck of a new administration in Washington and around any successive administration in Iraq. Can Congress stop this agreement? Will it? “I Don’t Know is on third.”