Asked earlier this week by Wolf Blitzer whether he'd honor an agreement between the U.S. and Iraq to withdraw American troops by the end of 2011, presidential candidate John McCain chided the CNN anchor: "You know better than that, Wolf. You know it's condition-based, and that's what the big fight was all about," McCain said, referring to his difference with Barack Obama over when and how to withraw U.S. forces from Iraq. Whereas Obama has sought to set a 16-month deadline for U.S. withdrawal, McCain has denounced that as defeatist and insisted that any decision to withdraw should be based on U.S. commanders' assessment of security conditions on the ground.
But McCain seemed to ignore the fact that while Washington had certainly demanded a conditions-based formula for withdrawing U.S. troops, the Iraqi government has managed to walk the Bush Administration back to the point where it has accepted firm withdrawal deadlines. The current version, described by U.S. officials as a "final" draft, specifies that U.S. forces will withdraw from Iraq's cities "no later than June 30th, 2009", and from all Iraqi territory "no later than December 31st, 2011." There is certainly a provision for those dates to be subject to "review," but changing them would require agreement from both sides. Effectively, the draft agreement puts any "conditions-based" decision to extend the deadline into the hands of the Iraqi government. And on current indications, the Iraqis are unlikely to accept any extension. In fact, right now the Iraqi government appears unable even to accept the "final" draft agreement that contains those deadlines its negotiators demanded for fear of enraging its electorate.
U.S. officials are signaling growing frustration over the fact that even after Washington has made substantial concessions to the Iraqi side on troop-withdrawal deadlines and other matters, the Iraqis have balked at closing the deal. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen warned this week that the failure of Iraq's government to pass the draft Status of Forces Agreement will have "dire consequences" for Iraq, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned the absence of an agreement might result in U.S. forces being confined to base after January 1, when the current United Nations mandate legitimizing their operations in Iraq expires. But despite such warnings from Washington, all indications from inside the Iraqi political system are that the draft agreement is unlikely to be adopted. Iraq's Political Council for National Security, which brings together representatives of the major parties in Iraq's parliament, called for modifications of the deal when it met last Saturday, and Prime Minister Maliki's own cabinet has echoed that position even though it was his government that negotiated the draft. It appears highly unlikely, now, that Iraq's parliament will endorse the agreement in its current form a prerequisite for it becoming law.
Some American officials see the hand of Iran at work in the deadlock: U.S. commander General Ray Odierno last Sunday suggested that Tehran had tried to bribe Iraqi leaders in order to deal a setback to the U.S. charges the Iraqis angrily reject. Iran certainly opposes any agreement extending the U.S. military presence on its doorstep, and the dominant political parties in the U.S.-backed government are, in fact, the Iraqi factions closest to Iran. More important, however, may be the fact that the U.S. invasion has led to Iraq being turned into a democracy, where the will of the people can't be ignored. Opinion polls consistently show that a strong majority of Iraqis oppose the presence of American troops in their country. And it's fear of the Iraqi electorate, rather than the allure of any Iranian funds, that appears to be driving the Iraqi government's opposition to signing the deal. Iraqi political parties will face the voters in regional polls later this year, and in a national election next year, and that has made them extremely reluctant to publicly endorse the security deal. While government opponents such as the radical anti-American Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Sadr are making hay out of the issue, mounting huge public protest demonstrations, even Maliki's own cabinet has declined to endorse the draft agreement.
The Status of Forces Agreement would mark the first time a representative Iraqi government formally declares that U.S. troops are on Iraqi soil as invited guests rather than as U.N.-sanctioned occupiers. And precisely because it is finally accountable to the Iraqi electorate, that's a step that the Iraqi government appears to remain unlikely to take. If, in fact, Iraq's government turns down the deal, it questions the very basis of the ongoing U.S. mission. (After all, enabling a democratically elected Iraqi government to take charge of the country is, ostensibly, the basic goal of the mission.)
The U.S. is in no mood to reopen negotiations, as Defense Secretary Gates and other officials have made clear. And given the political hurdles faced by any pact to extend the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, it may well be that no agreement can be reached before the current U.N. mandate expires. The Iraqis don't appear overly bothered by that possibility, suggesting that the U.N. mandate could simply be extended by the Security Council for another year. Washington has strongly discouraged that view, warning that following the summer's Georgia conflict, Russia may be in a spoiling mood and veto such an extension although Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has since made clear that Moscow would, in fact, support an extension. (After all, the failure to achieve a Status of Forces Agreement would be enough of a setback for Washington to satisfy any Russian schadenfreude.)
Sure, the continuation of the U.N. mandate would deny the Iraqis the gains they have negotiated in the current draft agreement, giving the Iraqis less control over U.S. military operations on their soil. But it would expire after a year, and leave the Iraqis holding the cards. Then again, thanks to democracy, perhaps they already do.