Friday, October 24, 2008

Iraq's government is giving us a gift, let's take it

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced on Friday that he wouldn’t sign the Status of Forces (SOF) agreement that his government has just finished negotiating with the United States.

The SOF provides the legal basis for the United States military operations in Iraq. Currently, the US (and other multinational forces) are operating in Iraq under a mandate issued by the United Nations back in 2003. But that mandate expires at the end of the year and without either a new one from the UN or a SOF between the US and Iraq, America's military wouldn't have legal grounds for operating in Iraq. Or in the words of the United States’ commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno: "Without (a security agreement), we would potentially have to cease all operations."

Al-Maliki's government isn't happy with the SOF, even after the US gave major concessions to Iraq, including prior approval of military missions conducted by US forces, and the right to arrest and try US soldiers who are suspected of committing crimes when they are off-duty and off US bases (a privilege the US doesn't even grant to some of its closest allies like Japan). The Bush administration is peeved at Iraq's failure to sign.

They shouldn't be.

Let's face it, Iraq is handing us a gift - a quick end to our military involvement in Iraq – we’re silly not to take it.

Whether you support the war or not, there are a couple of facts that can't be ignored about Iraq - it's costing us a pile of money ($1.5 billion per week is the figure usually quoted) and it's dangerously overstretched our military. We can't afford either cost any longer.

Not to mention that the stated goals of the 2003 invasion were all accomplished long ago: getting rid of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (done, well they weren't there in the first place…), removing Saddam Hussein from power (done, he’s been tried and executed), and bringing democracy to Iraq (done). On that last point - Iraq's democracy is far from perfect and in reality is a functioning democracy only in a broad sense of the term. But the work that's left to do in the country is political, not military; only the Iraqis can improve their government.

Even with a huge number of US troops in Iraq, their Shiite-dominated government has fallen under the influence of their brethren in neighboring Iran, and the Iraqi Kurds in the north of the country are threatening to go their own way – control over the oil-rich region around the city of Kirkuk is probably the biggest source of conflict within Iraq’s government, while the Kurds are already fighting a low-level war with Turkey over the idea of “Greater Kurdistan”.

The point is that these are Iraqi problems to solve, they’re happening with our troops in-country, they’ll continue to happen if we stay or if we go. Only the Iraqis can decide if they want to be a client state of Iran or if the Arab Iraqi’s (the Shia and Sunnis) and Kurdish Iraqis even want to share a country. These problems won’t be solved by the end of 2011 (the expiration date for our proposed SOF agreement with Iraq) or mid-2010 (Obama’s target date for getting our troops out of Iraq), so where’s the logic in staying any longer if we are clearly not wanted and if our presence isn’t solving these problems in the first place?

Frankly, I am surprised that George Bush doesn’t jump at this fig leaf of a foreign policy victory to wrap up his presidency at a time when he is looking incredibly irrelevant. Imagine this: a last Bush address from the White House sometime in December where he announces that, in agreement with the Iraqi government, the troops will be coming home from Iraq, starting immediately. He can go on about how one of the world’s worst dictators has been replaced by a democracy, and how our troops are liberators, not occupiers. He can even look into the camera, do that half-squint thing he does when he’s about to say something he thinks is profound and say something like “and when that young democracy said ‘we’re ready’, our troops came home.”

I don’t know why he doesn’t go for it, use it as cornerstone for the George W. Bush presidential library to try to start to build a foreign policy legacy on, rather than sending Condi Rice out to make statements about how the Iraqis aren’t ready to lead yet, and let the news magazines write stories about how he’s so unpopular that Republicans running for office don’t want the President of the United States to campaign on their behalf. But he’s not, so it’s likely the last act of the administration will be to try to strong-arm an agreement out of Iraq to keep our troops in place a little while longer in a land where they’re not wanted, trying to complete a mission that was finished long ago.
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