For the United States in Iraq, nothing is ever simple. If the two agreements struck by Washington and Baghdad this weekend tell us nothing else, they tell us that.
For nearly a year, American and Iraqi negotiators have haggled over future relations between our nations: both immediate military accommodations and long term diplomatic ties. Pressure to arrive at a settlement has been spurred by the fast-approaching end of the United Nations mandate that authorizes U.S. military operations (from the standpoint of international legitimacy). It runs out on December 31.
So diplomats have now signed off on related agreements governing bilateral relations and, of more urgent significance, the privileges and immunities of American forces stationed in Iraq — i.e., a “status of forces agreement” (SOFA) between Washington and Baghdad. The pacts must now be voted on in the Iraqi parliament, where approval is expected.
Without the SOFA, dark choices would face both sides. For the U.S., it would mean operating illegally (at least in the eyes of the world) or withdrawing — at the risk of forfeiting the hard-won progress of the surge and enhancing, yet again, the credibility of radical Islam’s rogues who insist that Americans lack the stomach for the long, bloody fight.
For Iraq’s larval government, the SOFA is the difference between falling prey to those selfsame rogues or continuing to thrive while chafing under American protection.
INCONVENIENT FACT: THE IRAQIS DON’T LIKE US
This last point is the one that gnaws. Thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions in taxpayer funds have been expended to provide Iraqis the opportunity to live freely. And this despite the facts that (a) the U.S. interest in Iraqi democracy remains tenuous (our interest was the elimination of Saddam’s terror-mongering, weapons-proliferating regime), and (b) Americans were assured, when the nation-building enterprise commenced, that oil-rich Iraq would underwrite our sacrifices on its behalf. Yet, to be blunt, the Iraqis remain ingrates. That stubborn fact complicates everything.
Yesterday, speaking about the SOFA on condition of anonymity, a senior administration official acknowledged as much: “We’re still not popular with the Iraqis.” That’s putting it mildly.
A BBC poll released in March indicated that a staggering four in ten Iraqis believe that attacks on U.S. forces are justified. Perhaps, one wonders hopefully, they will feel differently given the success of the surge in tamping down violence? Sorry, no.
By last spring, when the poll was taken, the surge was well underway. The polling data actually accounted for its security improvements: months earlier, in late 2007, nearly 60 percent of Iraqis supported terror strikes against the American troops who’d given them the chance to live in freedom. Moreover, fully 80 percent of the population wanted Americans to vacate their country, a figure that dipped marginally, to 72 percent, amid the surge’s security improvements.
That is the backdrop against which the new agreements must be evaluated. It is one the administration prefers to obscure. Instead, its democracy promotion enthusiasts urge Americans to evaluate the new arrangements in terms of perceived Iranian opposition. “See, it must be good for us,” they say, “because Tehran doesn’t like it.”
WHAT THE IRANIANS THINK
As usual, it’s not that simple. U.S. intelligence insists that Iran has been pressing all its capabilities to thwart agreements that authorize a continuing American military presence and provide for an enduring American/Iraqi relationship. Yet, at least for public consumption, official Iran has lavished praise on the new agreements. After months of withering criticism as negotiations ensued, Iran’s judiciary chief, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, gushed on regime-controlled television that “[t]he Iraqi government has done very well regarding this.”
Small wonder. The SOFA provides for the very withdrawal deadlines once derided as self-defeating by both the Bush administration and such Democrat foreign-affairs gurus as Vice-President-Elect Joe Biden. By mid-2009, American combat operations must cease in all major cities. By the end of 2011, a total pull-out of U.S. forces must be complete.
Trying to put its best face on these unsavory terms, the Bush administration maintains that they are consistent with the expectations of Generals David Petreaus and Raymond Odierno, the outstanding commanders on the ground. Those expectations, however, assumed no deadlines that would incentivize our enemies to bide their time while waiting us out.