Published on Iraq Slogger on February 14, 2008
In the early months of 2008, the Washington debate over what to do next in Iraq has revolved around two important issues: post-“surge” troop levels and a long-term security pact between the United States and Iraq. Both issues have significant political implications, especially in the middle of a closely contested election year, because the decisions made by President Bush during the months ahead will determine the decisions confronted by the next president immediately upon entering office in early 2009.
On the issue of troop levels, the White House has made it known that it wants to “pause” troop withdrawals this summer after completing the removal of five brigades sent to Iraq last year as part of the surge. The removal of these brigades will bring U.S. troop levels down to the pre-surge level of approximately 130,000. “I think that the notion of a brief period of consideration and evaluation probably does make sense,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said February 11 during a stop in southern Baghdad. “One of the keys is how long is that period and what happens next.”
The Bush administration continues to argue that it cannot make any definitive decision on troop levels until it receives a progress report from General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. “Any further troop reductions will be based upon commanders and conditions,” Bush reiterated on January 31.
Getting advice from military commanders is to be expected, but Bush seemingly wants to cede to General Petraeus what ultimately must be a political decision made by the Commander in Chief. This deference to military commanders strikes many political and military analysts as troubling not just because civilian control of the military is so deeply-rooted in the American political system, but also because the administration showed such willful disregard in the run-up to the invasion for military leaders like General Eric Shinseki, who told Congress that “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed to invade and rebuild Iraq. Bush’s newfound deference to his commanders’ military advice seems inconsistent at best, disingenuous at worst.
General Petraeus possesses a level of trust with Congress and the American public that Bush hasn’t enjoyed since the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Bush may be using General Petraeus to put a glossy finish on the decision to halt troop reductions this summer, a decision that is sure to be unpopular with the 60% of the American public that continues to believe the Iraq war was a mistake and the 50% that wants U.S. troops out within one year. General Petraeus’s role in these political machinations shares eerie similarities with former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s role during Bush’s first term.
With final decisions over troop levels proceeding slowly, the more interesting political action in Washington during January and February has concerned negotiations over a long-term security pact between the United States and Iraq. What originally was supposed to shape up as the Iraq fight du jour for 2008, however, has quickly devolved into the theater of the absurd, as the administration has backpedaled on some of the language included in the “Declaration of Principles for a Long-Term Relationship” signed by Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in November 2007.
This Declaration was intended to lay the groundwork for the Iraqi and the U.S. governments to forge a long-term bilateral security pact – a draft of which is expected by July 31, 2008 – that will replace the current U.N. Chapter VII mandate under which U.S. and U.S.-led forces are responsible for contributing to the security of Iraq. The proposed agreement could take many forms and may include a package of agreements, ranging from a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to economic development packages to basing agreements to a formal defense treaty. Generally, SOFAs constitute agreements rather than treaties and need not be sent to the U.S. Senate for advice and consent.
The language included in the November Declaration was so much stronger than a typical SOFA, however, that it set off alarm bells in Washington. For example, the Declaration affirms that the United States will provide “security assurances and commitments to to deter foreign aggression against Iraq that violates its sovereignty and integrity of its territories, waters, or airspace.” The Declaration also stipulates that the United States will support Iraq “in defending its democratic system against internal and external threats.”
This language might be interpreted as requiring U.S. forces to combat any armed faction that the Iraqi government deems a threat without regard for whether or not the Iraqi government has made efforts to address the sources and causes of the threat, or whether or not the threatening party is pursuing a legitimate grievance against the Iraqi government. U.S. forces might conceivably be drawn into an internal political dispute over what exactly constitutes a security threat to Iraq. For example, Iraqi Kurds might argue that the United States is required to confront Turkey over its military actions against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. Or, Iraqi Shiites might assert that the United States is required to confront Sunni Arab governments that are accused of arming and abetting Sunni insurgents entering Iraq.
Alarmed by the potential repercussions of such an arrangement, two pieces of legislation were introduced in Congress in January: S.2426, cosponsored by Democratic presidential frontrunners Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and the companion H.R. 4959, introduced by Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro. Both bills would bar funding for any permanent agreement between the U.S. and Iraq unless it was approved by two-thirds of the Senate under Article II of the Constitution.
The White House should have anticipated that the November Declaration would raise hackles in Congress, but as George Washington Law School Professor Michael Matheson suggested in his February 8 testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “I suspect that was not properly vetted within the U.S. executive branch with those folks who would know about some of the issues we’ve been discussing – for example, the lawyers.” Matheson added that “From the moment I saw the language, I realized that the administration was going to have to back away from it…It was a political statement which was inappropriately drafted.”
Recent White House comments on the Declaration have been more akin to a full-fledged retreat than subtle political spin. “The fact is, in every meeting that I’ve taken part in, it has been affirmed from the president on down that we do not want permanent bases in Iraq,” Secretary Gates told a Senate committee on February 6. “The status of forces agreement that is being discussed will not contain a commitment to defend Iraq…we certainly do not consider the declaration of principles a security commitment to the Iraqis.”
President Bush echoed his secretary’s remarks in response to a question about the Declaration on February 10, telling Fox News that “We won’t have permanent bases…we’ll work with the Senate and the House.”
Congressional sources in the Senate have communicated privately that despite the administration’s backpedaling on the Declaration’s language, the U.S.-Iraq pact is not an issue they are willing to let slip by. Watch for arguments to intensify when General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker return to Washington next month to testify about the situation in Iraq, and as the July 31 deadline for submission of the Declaration draft approaches.