Politics & Policy

Obama 101

My firsthand lesson.

On Monday, in an opinion piece published in the New York Post, I suggested that Senator Barack Obama had urged Iraqi leaders to postpone making an agreement with the United States until there was a new administration in Washington.

I said this because Obama himself had said it.

In an interview broadcast by NBC on June 16, 2008, Obama said that he had told Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari that “the Congress should be involved in any negotiations regarding the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq” and “suggested it may be better to wait until the next administration to negotiate such an agreement.”

I said it because Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said it.

In an interview published by the pan-Arab daily Asharq Alawast on September 11, 2008, Zebari raised the issue at length. This is part of what he said: “Obama asked me why, in view of a change of administration, we were hurrying the signing of this special agreement, and why we did not wait until the coming of a new administration next year to agree on some issues and matters.”

I said it because my Iraqi sources, who asked not to be identified because they do not wish to pick a quarrel with someone who could be the President of the United States next year, said it.

A day after my op-ed was published, Obama’s campaign issued a statement, in effect confirming what I had said.

It said, in part, “Senator Obama has consistently said that any security arrangements that outlast this administration should have the backing of the US Congress — especially given the fact that the Iraqi parliament will have the opportunity to vote on it.”

On Wednesday, the senator issued another statement — also in response to my op-ed — denying that he had ever opposed “a redeployment and responsible drawdown” of U.S. forces in Iraq. But I never said he did. I also never said that he opposed motherhood and apple pie; In any case, no one would oppose “redeployment and responsible drawdown,” something that is happening all the time. Redeployment means moving some units from one location to another. Drawdown means reducing the size of the expeditionary force in accordance with the task at hand. Right now troops are being redeployed from Anbar province to Salahuddin. There is also drawdown: The number of U.S. troops has been drawn down to 136,000, the lowest since a peak of 170,000 in 2003.

What Obama hopes his more radical followers will not notice is that he is no longer speaking of “withdrawal.”

He also hopes to hide the fact that by telling the Iraqi leaders that a putative Obama administration might scrap agreements reached with the Bush team, he might have delayed the start of a process that should lead to a withdrawal of U.S. forces within a mutually agreed timeframe. The later you start the negotiating process, the later you get an agreement. And the later you have an agreement, the later you can withdraw your troops based on the agreed necessary security arrangements to ensure their safe departure.

By trying to second-guess the present administration in its negotiations with Iraq, Obama ignored a golden rule of American politics. I first learned about that rule from Senator Edward Kennedy more than 30 years ago. During a visit to Tehran, Kennedy received a few Iranian reporters for a poolside chat. The big question at the time was negotiations between Washington and Tehran about massive arms contracts. When we asked Kennedy what he thought of those negotiations, his answer was simple: He would not comment on negotiations between his government and a foreign power, especially when abroad. That, he said, was one of the golden rules of American politics.

A few years later, I spent a day with Ronald Reagan during his visit to Iran. I asked what he thought of the strategic arms limitation talks between the U.S. and the USSR. He echoed Kennedy’s golden rule: He would not comment on his government’s negotiations with a foreign power, especially when abroad.

A couple of years ago, I ran into that golden rule again. At a meeting with Senator Hillary Clinton in Washington, I asked what she thought of the Bush administration’s negotiations with the Iraqis concerning security cooperation. She said she would not second-guess the president and would wait for the outcome of the negotiations. In a statesmanlike manner, Senator Clinton reminded me of the golden rule—one that is common to all mature democracies where the opposition is loyal and constitutional.

Today, Senator Obama is the leader of a loyal opposition in the United States, not the chief of an insurrection or a revolutionary uprising. What we are witnessing in the U.S. is an election, not an insurrection or a coronation, even less a regime change.

Obama should not have discussed the government-to-government negotiations with the Iraqis. That he did, surprised the Iraqis no end. Raising the issue with them, especially the way he did, meant that he was telling them that he did not trust his own government. The Iraqis could not be blamed for wondering why they should trust a government that is not trusted by the leader of its own loyal opposition. (There was also no point in raising the matter, because Obama did not know the content of the negotiations.)

An opposition leader’s foreign trips are useful as fact-finding missions. This means that the opposition leader listens to the locals, asks questions, and tries to get the political feel of the place. He is not there to lecture the natives or bad-mouth his own government back home.

Obama might have attended a session of the new Iraqi parliament and congratulated the people of Iraq for defying death to go through one referendum and two general elections to build a new democracy.

He might have visited some of the good work done by over 1.2 million Americans, both military and civilian, who have heroically served in Iraq since its liberation.

He might have visited some of the wounded victims of terrorism, both U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians, to comfort them, and assure them of continued U.S. determination to fight the forces of evil.

He did none of those things during his eight-hour photo-op visit.

In the American system, the administration can conclude agreements with foreign powers on a range of issues backed by an executive order from the president. I am no expert, but the U.S. has signed scores, maybe hundreds of such agreements with many countries across the globe. To be sure, the U.S. legislature always has the power to seek the abrogation of any of these agreements. When it comes to treaties, however, they cannot come into effect without full Senate approval.

However, Iraq and the U.S. are not negotiating a treaty, and, if they were, Obama could have waited until the draft text was submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by his vice-presidential running mate Joseph Biden.

In any case, every agreement and every treaty contains mechanisms for its suspension or abrogation. Therefore, even supposing Bush was negotiating an absolutely terrible agreement with the Iraqis in which he would be selling the family silver, Obama should have waited until he saw the text, and then demanded the cancellation of the accord through the constitutional channels.

One key feature of all mature powers, at least since the Congress of Vienna, is the reliability of their international commitments. Even putschists who seize power in a military coup make sure that their first pronunciamento includes this key sentence: We shall honor all of our country’s international obligations and commitments. Even regime change does not absolve states from their international obligations. The new Iraqi government, for example, has not rejected the estimated $100 billion in foreign debt left by Saddam Hussein.

Instances of a state reneging on all its obligations as a result of change are rare in history. One instance came in 1918 when Trotsky, appointed Commissar for Foreign Affairs by Lenin, announced that he had abrogated all of Tsarist Russia’s treaties with foreign nations and ordered the texts burned to heat the rooms of an empty foreign ministry.

What Obama was attempting, however, was more original. It amounted to preemptive diplomacy used against one’s own government: opposing an agreement not yet negotiated and of the content of which he knew nothing. A neophyte in matters of politics and diplomacy, the young senator is certainly not wanting for originality.

Since I do not wish to become involved in an Alphonse-and-Gaston number with Obama, I suggest that we focus our attention on the fact that the nominee is left without anything resembling a policy on Iraq. So, rather than coming out with another denial of something I never said that he had done, the esteemed senator should ponder these questions:

Does he still believe that toppling Saddam Hussein was illegal and “the biggest strategic blunder in U.S. history”? If yes, we might wonder why he is prepared to deal with the new Iraqi leaders who, by definition, have usurped Hussein’s power in Baghdad with American support.

Does he still want to withdraw from Iraq or does he want to stay, doing a bit of “drawdown” and “redeployment” every now and then? And, if he wants to stay, on what basis, for what purpose, and for how long?

Is Senator Biden’s plan to carve Iraq into three separate states still a live option or has it been thrown into the dustbin where it should have been from the start?

Would Obama now support the conclusion of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and a Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) through negotiations between the Bush administration and the Iraqi administration of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, also a “lame duck,” as it faces elections early next year?

— Amir Taheri’s new book, The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution, is due for publication in November.

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