Foreign Policy Blogs

Would McCain Have Violated the SOFA?

“A President McCain would almost certainly have subverted the schedule and tried to keep more troops, and more active combat troops, in Iraq than the Iraqi legislators wanted,” wrote Juan Cole earlier this week.  Cole was referring to the Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and the United States, which states in Article 24:

1. All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.

2. All United States combat forces shall withdraw from Iraqi cities, villages, and localities no later than the time at which Iraqi Security Forces assume full responsibility for security in an Iraqi province, provided that such withdrawal is completed no later than June 30, 2009.

Cole praises Obama for upholding the agreement and criticizes McCain, whom he believes would have violated it.  Cole notes that during the 2008 campaign McCain envisioned keeping U.S. troops in Iraq through at least 2013, over a year after the SOFA deadline.  However, one of Cole’s commenters notes that after Obama became president, McCain backed Obama’s Iraq plan.  Of course, McCain claimed that Obama’s plan was “significantly different” from Obama’s campaign plan.  But was it?  Did Obama change his plan once elected?  Would McCain have made a different decision?  Regarding Iraq, one of the most significant issues in the 2008 election, did the election even matter?

Let’s look at Cole’s narrative.  In a post earlier this year, Cole dubbed Iraq “Obama’s biggest practical foreign policy success.”  Cole elaborated:

When he became president, his top generals, including Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno, reportedly came to him and attempted to convince him to modify the withdrawal timeline adopted by the Iraqi parliament as part of the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated shortly before he took office. They did not want US troops to cease patrolling independently in mid-June 2009. They did not want to get all combat troops out by summer 2010. They wanted to finesse the agreement. Reclassify combat troops under some other heading, they said.

The story to which Cole links discusses a meeting on January 21, 2009 between Obama and General Petraeus  in which Petraeus and Gates allegedly tried to convince Obama to back away from his 16-month withdrawal campaign pledge.  The article states:

Petraeus, Gates and Odierno had hoped to sell Obama on a plan that they formulated in the final months of the Bush administration that aimed at getting around a key provision of the U.S.-Iraqi withdrawal agreement signed envisioned re-categorising large numbers of combat troops as support troops. That subterfuge was by the United States last November while ostensibly allowing Obama to deliver on his campaign promise.

But as the New York Times story from December 2008 says about this plan, the subterfuge was about meeting the 2009 deadline, not the 2011 deadline:

The plan drafted by General Odierno and General Petraeus was drawn up to meet the so-called status of forces agreement between the United States and Iraqi governments that calls for all American forces to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011 and all combat troops out of Iraqi cities by June 2009. The agreement sets forth both a shorter and longer timetable than Mr. Obama’s campaign pledge, with some combat forces out sooner but all forces out later.

One way commanders say they will try to meet that first deadline is by effectively reassigning combat troops to training and support of the Iraqis, even though the difference would be in some cases semantic because armed American troops would still go on combat patrols with their Iraqi counterparts.

And this subterfuge was completely in line with Obama’s campaign promises.  Obama always said he’d leave a residual force.  One of his campaign advisers advocated a residual force of 60,000 to 80,000.  As for the 2011 deadline, the December 2008 New York Times story states:

General Odierno also said that he was planning for all American forces to be out of Iraq by 2011, as called for in the agreement with the Iraqi government, but he said the agreement could be renegotiated. “Three years is a long time,” General Odierno said.

The new military plan allows for the fact that negotiations could eventually call for American troops in Iraq after 2011, but it does not put a number on that force, a person familiar with its details said.

According to these stories, there was no secret plan to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011, in violation of the SOFA.  There was simply acknowledgment of the possibility that the U.S. could renegotiation the SOFA, per Article 30:

1. This agreement shall be effective for a period of three years, unless terminated sooner by either Party pursuant to paragraph 3 of this Article.

2. This Agreement shall be amended only with the official agreement of the Parties in writing and in accordance with the constitutional procedures in effect in both countries.

3. This Agreement shall terminate one year after a Party provides written notification to the other Party to that effect.

All of this suggests that, had McCain won the 2008 election, Petraeus and Odierno would not have recommended keeping U.S. troops in Iraq past the 2011 deadline.  Petreaus, Odierno, and McCain’s other advisers, may have advocated attempting to renegotiate the SOFA for a later withdrawal date.  But the more likely scenario is that, as far as the Iraq War goes, the 2008 election didn’t matter.