Saturday, November 8, 2008

Keeping Watch during Bush's Last Weeks - SOFA

President-elect Obama said it clearly in his press conference yesterday: this nation has only one president at a time and President Bush is it until January 20. For me that means that the Bush administration’s proven propensity for messing up the country still has eleven weeks for more mischief. I do not suggest that because of the Democratic victory President Bush is making new plans to undermine the will of the electorate that was about as much a repudiation of his policies and practices as one could imagine. No, even with this president, I am not that conspiracy-minded.

What worries me more is that the wheels of the Bush administration did not suddenly grind to a halt with the results of Tuesday’s election. Even if he wanted to, he could not bring the long and heavily-loaded train of his administration to a sudden stop.

Some things, like the Status of Forces Agreement negotiations with Iraq, continue with the same administration players seeking the same ends as before the election. In case you may be like the folks with whom I was discussing this yesterday who declared that they knew nothing of such negotiations and wondered why they hadn’t heard about them on television news programs, you might want to check out the article I wrote here about it last June titled,
“Iraq: Who’s on First?” and what I said at that time about what is at stake for both countries. In case you don’t have that much patience, here is a short summary.

As far back as five years, the Bush administration planned to get a long-term strategic agreement with the Iraqi government that would allow U.S. military presence in Iraq permanently. The negotiations on the agreement (SOFA) began early this year.

Why does the U.S. need such an agreement? The Bush administration didn’t seem to think it needed one when it invaded Iraq over five years ago. But once power was handed over 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.” 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, analogous to ones the U.S. has with South Korea, Germany, and Japan, but with some special privileges for the U.S. in Iraq.

As far back as January, Newsweek’s Michael Hirsch
saw what the Bush administration was trying to do.
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. (bold mine)
At the time, Senator Hillary Clinton warned the President not to take such action without congressional approval. The Bush administration claimed that the agreement did not need Senate ratification. As Hirsch saw last January, it
“…would be difficult if not impossible for future presidents to unilaterally breach such a pact.”
The administration’s plan was to have the new agreement signed and sealed by early in July. Alas, the democratically-elected-under-American-tutelage government of Iraq decided to exercise some of its sovereignty and has resisted many of the provisions the U.S. wanted, which brings us up to the present with no signed agreement, and the prospects of having one by the end of the year not bright.

Two days after the election of Barack Obama, the Washington Post
Iraq's chief spokesman said with unusual forcefulness Thursday that his government will continue to insist on a firm withdrawal date for U.S. troops, despite American demands that any pullout be subject to prevailing security conditions.

"Iraqis would like to know and see a fixed date," spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in an interview in which he also reiterated Iraq's position that American forces be subject to Iraqi legal jurisdiction in some instances.

Iraqi officials, who see President-elect Obama's views on the timing of a U.S. withdrawal as consonant with their own, appear to be leveraging his election to pressure the Bush administration to make last-minute concessions. Dabbagh said negotiations to reach a status-of-forces agreement, which would sanction the U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond 2008, would collapse if no deal is reached by the end of this month.
There was a time when President Bush confidently asserted that the U.S. would stay in Iraq only as long as the duly elected Iraqi government wanted. We haven’t heard that from him since the Iraqi government said they wanted a fixed date to get out of the country.

At issue in the negotiations is not only the “fixed date” but a host of other issues as well. Although the U.S. proposal and their revisions over the months have never been made public, Iraqis have released parts of the terms. By all accounts, the U.S. has made major concessions from the terms offered earlier in the year. According to the Middle East Times, the draft on which the U.S. thought it finally had agreement
includes the following provisions:
- All U.S. military operations would need the agreement of the Iraqi government and must be coordinated with Iraqi authorities. A joint U.S. Iraq committee would be set up for coordination.

- U.S. military forces would not be allowed to arrest or detain people without an Iraqi court order, and those arrested must be turned over to Iraqi authorities within 24 hours.

- U.S. troops would no longer be allowed to enter and search homes without a warrant in hand from Iraqi authorities except in combat situations.

- U.S. troops must end their presence in Iraqi cities and towns by June 30, and leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

- Before the end of the agreement, Iraq can ask the United States to maintain forces in the country for training and support.
Even these concessions by the Bush administration have not made the agreement palatable to many Iraqis:
Provisions of the draft agreement have apparently sparked a firestorm within Maliki's Shiite-dominated coalition government. Some factions apparently object to the clause allowing the possibility for U.S. troops to remain after 2011. Maliki has reportedly called for proposed amendments from members of his cabinet.
The U.S. negotiators have taken the position that they have made all of the concessions they are prepared to make.

In his interview with the Washington Post Abadi said it remained unclear how Obama’s election will ultimately affect the negotiations.
"It can go either way," he said. The Bush administration, the lawmaker explained, might have refrained from making some potentially controversial decisions during the run-up to the U.S. election. Conversely, he said, "maybe the political will in Washington will be weaker" now that the election is over.

Iraqi officials say it is also unclear how much support there is in the 275-member parliament for the agreement because many lawmakers are afraid to reveal their positions publicly. The Kurdish bloc, which has 53 seats, supports an agreement. Thirty lawmakers who are followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are staunchly opposed.
While I do not assign any particular virtue to the Iraqi government, I hope they resist signing an agreement unless it has a fixed date of departure for U.S. forces. If the year ends and the U.S. is in the position of not having a legitimized role in the country, that will be the best indication of our real status there.

We need to keep watch in these last weeks of the Bush presidency.* I’ll try to keep late-breaking developments on this agreement posted here because I don’t think you can count on hearing about them on the nightly news.
- Milo

*For my friends who supported Obama and those who didn’t, I’ll tell you that we also need to keep watch on the Obama presidency because a “watched” presidency is more likely to be a more responsible one. With their priorities on “entertaining” rather than “informing” the major networks cannot be trusted to give us all of the news we need. Had we done our jobs of watching and reporting better in the early years of the Bush presidency, he might not have won re-election in 2004. Scary to contemplate our own complicity isn’t it?

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