Foreign Policy Blogs

Make It A Hundred?

Earlier this week Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, pledged to seek a political consensus in Iraq on keeping U.S. troops in the country beyond 2011.  According to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) currently in place, the United States is obligated to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq by the end of this year.  Muqtada al-Sadr, of course, opposes a troop extension.  In a sermon on Friday, he said, “We appeal to all Iraqi people to expel the U.S. troops from Iraq through demonstrations and marches…”  It is unclear whether he intends to resort to violence to achieve this goal.

It’s important to keep in mind that this debate is not about whether there will be a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq.  It is actually about whether that presence will consist of military personnel or private contractors under the umbrella of the State Department.  As The New York Times reported last year, the post-2011 U.S. plan is to keep up to 7000 security contractors in Iraq to “operate radars to warn of enemy rocket attacks, search for roadside bombs, fly reconnaissance drones and even staff quick reaction forces to aid civilians in distress.”

It is also interesting to remember how this issue emerged during the 2008 presidential campaign.  The Democrats perpetually hammered McCain for this exchange:

Q: President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years — (cut off by McCain)

McCAIN: Make it a hundred.

Q: Is that … (cut off)

McCAIN: We’ve been in South Korea … we’ve been in Japan for 60 years. We’ve been in South Korea 50 years or so. That would be fine with me. As long as Americans …

Q: [tries to say something]

McCAIN: As long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. That’s fine with me, I hope that would be fine with you, if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where Al Queada is training and equipping and recruiting and motivating people every single day.

And yet, after Obama was elected, the leave-troops-in-Iraq-beyond-2011 option was always on the tableThe New York Times reported in December 2008:

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.

But this example of campaigning in poetry and governing in prose is not surprising.  What is surprising (to me) is Maliki’s reversal.  He said late last year of the SOFA, “This agreement is not subject to extension, not subject to alteration. It is sealed.”  Was that political posturing to garner support for a national unity government to end the parliamentary crisis that resulted from Iraq’s March 2010 elections?  After all, the crisis was resolved with Sadr’s support.  But as late as three weeks ago, apparently, Maliki told U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, that Iraq was ready to handle its own security.  The Chief of Staff of Iraq’s military, Babaker Zebari, has also gone back and forth on the issue. as Joel Wing writes here and here.  If I had to guess, I’d say that Iraq’s leaders are caught between what they perceive as their country’s strategic interest and public opinion, which seems to oppose a long-term U.S. military presence.  And seemingly, U.S. leaders are suffering from the same dilemma.