Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Obama, Principles & Iraq

Amir Taheri's NY Post column on Monday accusing Obama of attempting to subvert our negotiations with Iraq was such a serious charge, I opted to wait for additional confirmation before blogging it. Hostilities in Iraq are ongoing, though at a reduced level, and with an expansionist Iran as a next door neighbor, a resumption of major hostilities is clearly possible. For their safety and security, our soldiers must have a clear framework within which to operate in Iraq - and indeed, they need additional authorization even to be there after the UN mandate expires. What Obama has done is insinuate himself into the President's negotiations on that framework, attempting to sabotage them. Obama did so without authority and with an apparent goal of advancing his own ambitions. Now called on it, Obama, true to form, is trying to obfuscate the situation and parse terms rather than take responsibility for his actions.


The existing framework and authorization for our soldiers in Iraq, the UN Mandate, expires in January, 2009. The U.S. and Iraqi government have been negotiating for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which would provide the legal framework for our troops in Iraq. It is an agreement with Iraq that defines the legal and administrative rights of our soldiers while in that country. Operational issues - troop levels, right to take unilateral military actions, etc. - are the subject of a related Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA). The two agreements are two interrelated halves of a whole, both being necessary for our continued presence and activities in Iraq after the expiration of the UN Mandate. And indeed, according to the Congressional Research Service, the Bush administration and Iraq have been negotiating both agreements as part of a single package.

It is now confirmed that when Obama was there in July, he insinuated himself into this process, attempting to undercut the Bush administration and stop Iraq from negotiating these agreements or agreeing to time horizons for withdraw. This from Amir Taheri on Monday:

WHILE campaigning in public for a speedy withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Sen. Barack Obama has tried in private to persuade Iraqi leaders to delay an agreement on a draw-down of the American military presence.

According to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Obama made his demand for delay a key theme of his discussions with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad in July.

"He asked why we were not prepared to delay an agreement until after the US elections and the formation of a new administration in Washington," Zebari said in an interview.

Obama insisted that Congress should be involved in negotiations on the status of US troops - and that it was in the interests of both sides not to have an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in its "state of weakness and political confusion."

"However, as an Iraqi, I prefer to have a security agreement that regulates the activities of foreign troops, rather than keeping the matter open." Zebari says.

Though Obama claims the US presence is "illegal," he suddenly remembered that Americans troops were in Iraq within the legal framework of a UN mandate. His advice was that, rather than reach an accord with the "weakened Bush administration," Iraq should seek an extension of the UN mandate.

While in Iraq, Obama also tried to persuade the US commanders, including Gen. David Petraeus, to suggest a "realistic withdrawal date." They declined.

Obama has made many contradictory statements with regard to Iraq. His latest position is that US combat troops should be out by 2010. Yet his effort to delay an agreement would make that withdrawal deadline impossible to meet.

Supposing he wins, Obama's administration wouldn't be fully operational before February - and naming a new ambassador to Baghdad and forming a new negotiation team might take longer still.

By then, Iraq will be in the throes of its own campaign season. Judging by the past two elections, forming a new coalition government may then take three months. So the Iraqi negotiating team might not be in place until next June.

Then, judging by how long the current talks have taken, restarting the process from scratch would leave the two sides needing at least six months to come up with a draft accord. That puts us at May 2010 for when the draft might be submitted to the Iraqi parliament - which might well need another six months to pass it into law.

Thus, the 2010 deadline fixed by Obama is a meaningless concept, thrown in as a sop to his anti-war base.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Bush administration have a more flexible timetable in mind.

According to Zebari, the envisaged time span is two or three years - departure in 2011 or 2012. That would let Iraq hold its next general election, the third since liberation, and resolve a number of domestic political issues.

Even then, the dates mentioned are only "notional," making the timing and the cadence of withdrawal conditional on realities on the ground as appreciated by both sides.

Iraqi leaders are divided over the US election. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (whose party is a member of the Socialist International) sees Obama as "a man of the Left" - who, once elected, might change his opposition to Iraq's liberation. Indeed, say Talabani's advisers, a President Obama might be tempted to appropriate the victory that America has already won in Iraq by claiming that his intervention transformed failure into success.

Maliki's advisers have persuaded him that Obama will win - but the prime minister worries about the senator's "political debt to the anti-war lobby" - which is determined to transform Iraq into a disaster to prove that toppling Saddam Hussein was "the biggest strategic blunder in US history."

Other prominent Iraqi leaders, such as Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani, believe that Sen. John McCain would show "a more realistic approach to Iraqi issues."

Obama has given Iraqis the impression that he doesn't want Iraq to appear anything like a success, let alone a victory, for America. The reason? He fears that the perception of US victory there might revive the Bush Doctrine of "pre-emptive" war - that is, removing a threat before it strikes at America.

Despite some usual equivocations on the subject, Obama rejects pre-emption as a legitimate form of self -defense. To be credible, his foreign-policy philosophy requires Iraq to be seen as a failure, a disaster, a quagmire, a pig with lipstick or any of the other apocalyptic adjectives used by the American defeat industry in the past five years.

Yet Iraq is doing much better than its friends hoped and its enemies feared. The UN mandate will be extended in December, and we may yet get an agreement on the status of forces before President Bush leaves the White House in January.

This is a very serious charge in many respects. Obama has no authority to negotiate on behalf of the U.S., and for him to undercut the sitting President in the exercise of his Article 2 powers during hostilities is outrageous, if not criminal. Confirmation from muliple sources has since occurred. This from the American Spectator:

The Obama campaign spent more than five hours on Monday attempting to figure out the best refutation of the explosive New York Post report that quoted Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari as saying that Barack Obama during his July visit to Baghdad demanded that Iraq not negotiate with the Bush Administration on the withdrawal of American troops. Instead, he asked that they delay such negotiations until after the presidential handover at the end of January.

The three problems, according to campaign sources: The report was true, there were at least three other people in the room with Obama and Zebari to confirm the conversation, and there was concern that there were enough aggressive reporters based in Baghdad with the sources to confirm the conversation that to deny the comments would create a bigger problem . . .

Amazing. And even more outrageous is the incredibly deceptive response from the Obama camp that they finally settled upon. The Obama camp responded by calling the Taheri article "a pack of lies," admitting that Obama made the request to Iraq that they stop negotiating with Bush, but claiming that Obama was only referring to the SFA:

But Obama's national security spokeswoman Wendy Morigi said Taheri's article bore "as much resemblance to the truth as a McCain campaign commercial."

In fact, Obama had told the Iraqis that they should not rush through a "Strategic Framework Agreement" governing the future of US forces until after President George W. Bush leaves office, she said.

In the face of resistance from Bush, the Democrat has long said that any such agreement must be reviewed by the US Congress as it would tie a future administration's hands on Iraq.

"Barack Obama has never urged a delay in negotiations, nor has he urged a delay in immediately beginning a responsible drawdown of our combat brigades," Morigi said.

President Bush is operating pursuant to his Article II powers and Congress's Authorization For Use Of Military Force - Iraq passed in 2002. No one can argue with a straight face that he does not have the power to negotiate the above agreements with the sole exception that he cannot make a formal security agreement with Iraq nor commit the U.S. to keep forces in Iraq once hostilities are recognized as concluded - and thus ending Congressional authorization for engaging in military force in Iraq. Thus, Obama's denial here is just incredibly disingenuous. Regardless of how Obama, a professor of Constitutional Law, might wish to parse and obfuscate this, his actions were completely out of bounds and taken not in the best interests of the U.S. or our soldiers deployed in Iraq, but in the best interests of his campaign for President.

That said, Amir Taheri is pushing back today against both the response from the Obama camp and the mountain of death threats he has received for accurately reporting Obama's actions while visiting Iraq:

. . . the claim that Obama only wanted the Strategic Framework Agreement delayed until a new administration takes office, and had no objection to a speedy conclusion of a Status of Forces Agreement, is simply untrue.

Here is how NBC reported Obama's position on June 16, after his conversation in the US with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari: "Obama also told Zebari, he said, that Congress should be involved in any negotiations regarding a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq. He suggested it may be better to wait until the next administration to negotiate such an agreement."

In other words, Obama wanted a delay on the Status of Forces Agreement, not on the Strategic Framework Agreement - as his rebuttal now claims.

The NBC report continues: "Asked by NBC's Lee Cowan if a timetable for the Status of Forces Agreement was discussed, Obama said, 'Well he, the foreign minister, had presented a letter requesting an extension of the UN resolution until the end of this year. So that' s a six-month extension.'ñ"

That Obama was aware that the two accords couldn' t be separated is clear in his words to NBC:

"Obviously, we can' t have US forces operating on the ground in Iraq without some sort of agreement, either a further extension of the UN resolution or some sort of Status of Forces agreement, some strategic framework agreement. As I said before, my concern is that the Bush administration -- in a weakened state politically -- ends up trying to rush an agreement that in some ways might be binding to the next administration, whether it was my administration or Sen. McCain' s administration." (Emphasis added.)

Obama also told NBC: "The foreign minister agreed that the next administration should not be bound by an agreement that's currently made, but I think the only way to assure that is to make sure that there is strong bipartisan support, that Congress is involved, that the American people know the outlines of this agreement.

"And my concern is that if the Bush administration negotiates, as it currently has, and given that we're entering into the heat of political season, that we're probably better off not trying to complete a hard-and-fast agreement before the next administration takes office, but I think obviously these conversations have to continue.

"As I said, my No. 1 priority is making sure that we don' t have a situation in which US troops on the ground are somehow vulnerable to, are made more vulnerable, because there is a lack of a clear mandate."

This confirms precisely what I suggested in my article: Obama preferred to have no agreement on US troop withdrawals until a new administration took office in Washington.

Obama has changed position on another key issue. In the NBC report, he pretends that US troops in Iraq do not have a "clear mandate." Now, however, he admits that there is a clear mandate from the UN Security Council and that he'd have no objection to extending it pending a bilateral Iraq-US agreement.

The campaign's rebuttal adds other confusions to the mix. It notes that Obama (along with two other senators who accompanied him) also stated in July: "We raised a number of other issues with the Iraqi leadership, including our deep concern about Iranian financial and material assistance to militia engaged in violent acts against American and Iraqi forces; the need to secure public support through our respective legislatures for any long term security agreements our countries negotiate; the importance of doing more to help the more than 4 million Iraqis who are refugees or internally displaced persons; and the need to give our troops immunity from Iraqi prosecution so long as they are in Iraq."

Note that in this part of the statement, the term "security agreements" is used instead of SOFA and SFA - another sign that the two can' t be separated.

In any case, I never said Obama didn't raise other issues with the Iraqis. Yet all those issues have been the subject of US-Iraqi talks between the US and Iraq (and of conferences attended by Iraq's neighbors) for the last five years. Simply repeating them isn' t enough to hide the fact that Obama' s policy on Iraq consists of little more than a few contradictory slogans.

My account of Obama's message to the Iraqis was based on a series of conversations with Iraqi officials, as well as reports and analyses in the Iraqi media (including the official newspaper, Al Sabah) on the senator's trip to Baghdad. It is also confirmed by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

In a long interview with the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, Zebari says: "Obama asked me why, in view of the closeness of a change of administration, we were hurrying the signing of this special agreement, and why we did not wait until the coming of the new administation next year and agree on some issues and matters."

Again, note that Zebari mentions a single set of agreements, encompassing both SFA and SOFA.

Zebari continues: "I told Obama that, as an Iraqi, I believe that even if there is a Democratic administration in the White House it had better continue the present policy instead of wasting a lot of time thinking what to do."

In other words, Obama was trying to derail current US policy, while Zebari was urging him not to "waste time."

Zebari then says: "I pointed out to him [Obama] that the agreement being negotiated [with the US] was not to be necessarily binding on the future administration unless it wanted to cooperate with the people of Iraq instead of [causing] crises and problems from its very start."

According to Zebari, Obama said "some media reports that I want all [American] forces withdrawn are wrong. I want to keep American forces [in Iraq] to train [the Iraqi army] and fight terrorism." This is precisely what US troops have been doing in Iraq for the last five years.

Zebari then says that he had the impression that US policy in Iraq wouldn't change: "The US has permanent strategic interests in our region. A change in the administration would not change realities and priorities and would not mean a change of policy as a whole." (Full text of the Zebari interview is available on

Contrary to what Obama and his campaign have said, Iraqi officials insist that at no point in his talks in Washington and Baghdad did Obama make a distinction between SOFA and SFA when he advised them to wait for the next American administration.

The real news I see in the Obama statement is that there may be an encouraging evolution in his position on Iraq: The "rebuttal" shows that the senator no longer shares his party leadership's belief that the United States has lost the war in Iraq.

He now talks of "the prospect of lasting success," perhaps hoping that his own administration would inherit the kudos. And he makes no mention of his running mate Joe Biden's pet project for carving Iraq into three separate states. He has even abandoned his earlier claim that toppling Saddam Hussein was "illegal" and admits that the US-led coalition's presence in Iraq has a legal framework in the shape of the UN mandate.

In his statement on my Post article, Obama no longer talks of "withdrawal" but of "redeployment" and "drawdown" - which is exactly what is happening in Iraq now.

While I am encouraged by the senator's evolution, I must also appeal to him to issue a "cease and desist" plea to the battalions of his sympathizers - who have been threatening me with death and worse in the days since my article appeared.

This issue is probably too convuluted for it to have the impact that it should. For that to happen, the MSM would need to explain it to the public. What Obama has done here is a travesty for which he should be held to account. I will not hold my breath waiting for the MSM to do their job.

More on this in links at Memorandum.


vinny said...

He should be thrown out of the Senate and he should be facing criminal charges. But how does one arrest The One?

Judith said...

You guys must not be familiar with the tactics long used by the Daley machine.

Trish said...

Not entirely familiar with the Chicagoland tactics, but don't want to witness them firsthand from the White House!
To have interfered in such matters, with the selfish intent of gaining for himslef personally, with our soldiers lives in question, is absolutley outrageous. What an arrogant jerk he is. Kick this bum out of the senate!
Vote McCain/Palin, or live with the consequences!

Ted Leddy said...

I have heard that before the 1968 election Richard Nixon sent a message to the South Vietnamese delegation at the Paris Peace conference that they should reject the agreement because they would get a far better deal under a Nixon administration. Reject it they did. When US forces eventually pulled out in 73 they did so under virtually the same terms as the 68 agreement. Between 68 and 73 a further 25,000 Americans would lose their lives.

Ymarsakar said...

What did people expect after they allowed semi-treasonous actions by the State Department, Valerie Plame, Sandy Berger, and Dick Clark to go not only unpunished, but actually gave rewards for such acts?

People emulate what works. And they don't see it as treason if it prospers.