Politics & Policy

Agree to Worry

Behind the Iraq security-agreement smiles.

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.

#ad#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.

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And that’s not the half of it. The post-war occupations in Japan and Germany, which supporters have pointed to in championing the democratization experiment in Iraq, featured a heavy, abiding American military presence to promote U.S. interests and regional security. By contrast, the aforementioned administration official conceded yesterday that the SOFA “forswears any U.S. bases on Iraqi soil” after 2011.

#ad#What’s more, no matter how randy the mullahs get as they build their nukes and saber-rattle against Israel and other American interests, the agreements prohibit the United States from using its current military bases in Iraq to stage operations against Iran or any other nation.

So how to explain the seemingly contradictory Iranian positions on the American/Iraqi negotiations? Well, they plainly do not reflect cut-and-dried Iranian opposition, as the administration suggests. Granted, the Iranians would prefer a complete U.S. failure in Iraq. They are more than happy, though, to take the glass half full. By mounting pressure on the Maliki government, they’ve won crucial concessions. And as time goes by, as we gradually recede and they continue (at the Maliki government’s invitation) to spread their tentacles through Iraqi society, Iran expects to win more. Hence its newly announced embrace of a SOFA that locks in guarantees against American reprisals despite Iran’s years of unanswered provocations.

FORFEITING LEGAL PROTECTIONS

Nor is that all. Because the U.S. is still widely reviled by Iraqi Muslims, Maliki insisted that his government be empowered to exercise jurisdiction over American soldiers who allegedly commit crimes in Iraq — at least to the extent such offenses occur off-base and outside official military duties. Worse, American non-military contractors have been consigned with even less protection to the Iraqi justice system, creating a powerful incentive for the contractors to cut back drastically the support services on which our strapped armed forces depend.

A joint American/Iraqi commission will continue refining the vague terms of this prosecution authority, and one hopes that due-process guarantees improve. This, however, brings to the fore another difficulty with the agreements.

The administration, arguing that the pacts are mere executive agreements, contends that no congressional legislation or Senate ratification is needed to validate them. The Constitution, however, prescribes a process for international treaties, and it vests Congress with significant powers to regulate foreign commerce, define offenses for which Americans may be held liable, and make rules for the regulation of our armed forces.

Can those powers legitimately be delegated to the executive branch through the device of an “executive agreement”? I’m skeptical, especially after living through eight years of non-stop Democrat assaults on presidential power. But perhaps the Left sees things differently now that the president’s name is about to be Obama.

WHAT ABOUT VICTORY?

More disturbing, though, is the trajectory of Iraqi politics. Maybe it is understandable that the administration, which has expended inordinate capital on Iraq’s political maturation, should celebrate the growing confidence of its government. For those of us who have never much cared whether Iraq became a democracy, more relevant are the popular currents to which Iraq’s government reacts. Those currents tell us Iraqis are more concerned about prosecuting Americans than embracing them.

That doesn’t bode well. Victory in Iraq has never meant a functioning democracy. It means defeating radical Islam, which in turn means routing al-Qaeda and leaving behind a stable Iraq that is an American ally against jihadist-sponsoring regimes like Iran. By those metrics, how are we faring?

On the plus side, al-Qaeda has been decimated in Iraq. Nevertheless, the withdrawal deadlines to which we’ve foolishly agreed give bin Laden a pathway to resurgence. Further, the incoherent approach of fighting a regional war on only two fronts has allowed the terror network to regroup in safe-havens outside Iraq.

As for Iran, it’s good to see Maliki’s government resisting domination by its neighbors to the east. Clearly, though, the Iraqis have used their leverage to shield the mullahs from U.S. attack even as Iran wages a terrorist war against American forces on Iraqi soil.

Today’s Obama euphoria will not long mask that the Iran/American conflict, far from going away, is intensifying. When the last American soldier departs in 2011, the question is: In which camp will Iraq stand? After all we’ve given, we still don’t know the answer. No matter how cleverly these new agreements are spun, that is very discouraging.

 National Review’s Andrew C. McCarthy chairs FDD’s Center for Law & Counterterrorism and is the author of Willful Blindness: A Memoir of the Jihad (Encounter Books 2008).

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