Monday, July 7, 2008

Will Iraqis Support John McCain?

I doubt that ordinary Iraqis, who have more reason than most to be cynical about politics, care very much who wins the White House in November. Despite Obama's carefully nuanced talk of withdrawal, all the concrete signs in Iraq point to business as usual for the US military machine abroad in 2009 and beyond.

But the US election cycle does present a window of opportunity for Iraqis to publicly pressure US politicians. An emboldened PM Al-Maliki is now demanding a pullout timetable in US defence pact talks. Good luck with that, mate:
Whitman said the United States had made clear "that we have no long term desires to have forces permanently stationed in Iraq.

"But timelines tend to be artificial in nature," he said. "In a situation where things are as dynamic as they are in Iraq, I would just tell you, it's usually best to look at these things based on conditions on the ground."
Hmmmn, "conditions on the ground" eh? Massive permanent military bases, continued immunity for US soldiers, regular oil pipeline sabotage, no justice for dead Iraq civilians, violence, chaos, poverty, et cetera. You get the message. How could US forces ever withdraw from Iraq while "conditions on the ground" remain so miserable??!

And of course Obama is also using phrases like "conditions on the ground" and "listen to the commanders". Josh Marshall says we should not be too cynical about that:
"Most people who are so keyed into specifics and hard deadlines are that way because we've had five years of a policy of deliberate deception in which vague promises of bringing the troops home in the pretty near future are hung out in front of the public's collective nose as a means of obscuring the real policy of keeping American troops in Iraq permanently as a way of securing oil reserves and projecting US power and in the region."
So I guess you just gotta have faith, right? Again: close your eyes, clap your hands, and say it with me, children:
"I DO believe in fairies Obama! I DO believe in fairies Obama!"
Like Australian voters last year, US voters in November will have a choice of a hardcore War Candidate and a softcore War Candidate. The results will probably be pretty similar: political posturing supported by expert media analysis, with little real change for ordinary Iraqis "on the ground".

So it's up to Iraqis to forge change themselves if they want US forces out. Violence has been down (to merely horrific levels) since Al Sadr called a ceasefire, and he is supporting the latest moves to negotiate a deal with Washington. Obviously, the next month presents a political window of opportunity, with a "Status of forces" agreement required by 31st July.

Writing in The Nation, Robert Dreyfuss says Maliki's call for a timetable is a bombshell:
Don't think for a minute that Maliki, or his Shiite allies, want the US forces to leave. But they are under a lot of pressure. First of all, they are under pressure from Iran, whose regime remains the chief ally of the ruling alliance of Shiites, including Maliki's Dawa party and the powerful Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), led by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim. Iran's goal is to neutralize Iraq as a possible threat to Iran, and Iran's leaders are pressuring Maliki and Hakim to loosen their reliance on the United States. Interestingly, Maliki reportedly told President Bush personally, in a video teleconference on Friday, that the United States cannot use Iraqi territory to attack Iran, and he added that "fomenting tension in the region and pushing for military action against Tehran could wreak havoc on the entire region, including Iraq."

Maliki is also under pressure from a broad coalition of Iraqi nationalists, from angry, disenfranchised Sunnis to Muqtada al-Sadr's movement.

But Maliki's statement is a big deal. At a minimum, it presents an enormous problem for Bush and John McCain, who are arguing for an indefinite US stay in Iraq til "victory," and who oppose a timetable. True, Maliki seems to be linking his timetable to Iraqi military success, which is not too different from the Bush-McCain formula. But inside Iraq, the pressure is building day by day for a US withdrawal, and Maliki is by no means in control of the process. The fact that both Iran and Sunni nationalists, who are on a collision course, agree that US forces need to leave Iran, only means that pro- and anti-Iranian factions will settle their differences (either by peaceful diplomacy or by violence) once the United States is gone.

Another factor is that Maliki, who is visiting the United Arab Emirates, is working hard to gain the support of the Sunni-led Arab regimes for his shaky coalition. The UAE and Jordan have both announced that they will be sending ambassadors to Baghdad, and King Abdullah of Jordan will himself make a visit to Baghdad soon, the first by an Arab head of state since the US invasion.

Despite US bungling, it seems increasingly likely that Iran and Saudi Arabia are working behind the scenes to negotiate a Shiite-Sunni accord in Iraq, but both Tehran and Riyadh will want it conditioned on a US withdrawal.
Think Progress notes Bush's promise from May 2007:
We are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government. This is a sovereign nation. Twelve million people went to the polls to approve a constitution. It’s their government’s choice. If they were to say, leave, we would leave.
UPDATE: It looks like this will lead to a written Memo Of Understanding regarding the future departure of US troops. Look again at exactly what Al-Maliki said:
"The direction we are taking is to have a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or to have a timetable for their withdrawal."
And this is the US response:
"Any agreement would not have any hard timetables for withdrawal, but could include the desire by the U.S. and Iraq to withdraw troops based on conditions on the ground," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
So now somebody has to write some clever little bit of text which can be easily re-interpreted as needed in future.
Al-Maliki said in a meeting with Arab diplomats in Abu Dhabi that his country also has proposed a short-term interim memorandum of agreement rather than the more formal status of forces agreement the two sides have been negotiating.

The memorandum "now on the table" includes a formula for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, he said.

"The goal is to end the presence (of foreign troops)," al-Maliki said.
Bush still has not responded to optimistic Iraqi talk about the US dropping immunity for private contractors and giving up control of Iraqi air space. Like Juan Cole said recently:
It is amazing what $70 billion a year in petroleum revenue will do for a prime minister's self-esteem.

Interestingly, both Al-Maliki and Bush are insisting they do not need political consensus in Congress or parliament to cement any such deal. There is a lot of short-term political selfishness evident on both sides of this deal.