On June 9, a senior U.S. official working on the proposed U.S.-Iraq long-term agreement admitted that it is “very possible” that in the face of Iraqi opposition, the agreement may fall through, forcing Iraq to extend the U.N. mandate that the pact was meant to replace later this year.
State Department adviser David Satterfield and President George Bush himself quickly moved to rebut the rumor, expressing confidence that the draft agreement would be ready by the end of July as scheduled.
Opposition to the agreement in Iraq is growing stronger by the day. Outspoken critics now include the majority of Iraq’s political parties, Iraqi civil society groups, and influential clerics like Moqtada al Sadr and Abdul-Aziz al Hakim.
If the anonymous administration official is correct and the agreement does get postponed, it would mean that whoever is elected President – either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain – would have the opportunity to negotiate some sort of agreement after they take office in 2009. The tenor of Obama or McCain’s negotiations is impossible to predict, but an accord does need to be concluded eventually on the legal status of U.S. forces in Iraq (literally known as a “Status of Forces Agreement”).
However, if the agreement does not get delayed and goes through before the end of the Bush administration, Obama or McCain would inherit a permanent presence policy concluded in the waning days of Bush’s disastrous second term. This clearly would limit their freedom of action on Iraq in 2009 and beyond.
There were also statements this week by Iraqi lawmakers who said that the United States wants the long-term agreement to include 58 permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, control over Iraqi airspace, and immunity from prosecution for U.S. troops and private military contractors. Astonishingly, 58 bases would actually be an increase over the 30 or so major bases the United States currently uses in Iraq.
Considering Bush’s basement-dwelling approval ratings, an American public that steadfastly opposes the war, and the GOP’s uphill battle this November, Bush and his political advisers surely know that pushing hard for an unpopular policy like permanent bases is political suicide. This is the White House that Scott McClellan accuses of having a “permanent campaign” mentality, after all.
The reality is that when it comes to the U.S.-Iraq agreement, Bush is probably suffering from two problems that have plagued his administration: lack of foresight and lack of good help. More tempered voices like Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who said he would rather see the agreement done right than done fast, are likely being marginalized by the hawkish bomb-throwers in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office.
Although the American politics are provocative as always, the view from Iraq is just as good. As is usually the case in Iraq, the significance of recent events is more than the sum of its parts.
From a certain perspective, leaking the 58 bases proposal to the media this week could be interpreted as Iraqi leaders utilizing Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW), a theory of war that sees combat and politics/propaganda as fundamentally interrelated.
Practitioners of 4GW use whatever means necessary – be it suicide bombings or press conferences – to convince their opponent that their objectives are unrealistic or too costly, demoralizing them and undermining their domestic support back at home.
While there is likely a kernel of truth in the 58 bases report, i.e. it is actually the U.S. negotiating position (as hard as that is to believe), Iraqi leaders may be leaking it to the press for a more strategic purpose: because it flummoxes the United States politically and hastens withdrawal, which is the Iraqis’ ultimate goal.
If the media starts to report that the Bush administration is seeking 58 permanent bases, the backlash from the American public will damage Bush, the GOP, and, most significantly, McCain. If McCain suffers, Obama benefits. If Obama benefits, he wins in November. If he wins in November, U.S. troops come out of Iraq sooner and Iraqis get their country back.
Thus, leaking the 58 bases proposal now, whether accurate or not, could be interpreted as an Iraqi 4GW tactic intended to out-communicate and, eventually, expel an occupying power, which remains the overarching strategic objective for many Iraqis.