On the way out

The Iraqi government is opening the door; will we use it to leave?

John Sharkey

Those in the Bush Administration have long sung the praises of democracy. We want to spread freedom in the Middle East, after all. We were inspired by photographs of Iraqi citizens showing off their purple ink-stained fingers as they emerged from the voting booth. Now, however, we’ve reached a crucial test: will we treat the Iraqi government like the sovereign authority we’ve always claimed it is, or will we ignore its requests and risk the specter of imperialism?

The surge of American troops is now officially over, but we may finally be seeing some of the long-hoped-for Iraqi political progress. First, the Iraqi government altered course and rejected the proposed oil contracts about which I wrote my last column. While negotiations continue, the breaking point for the Iraqi authorities was the fact that the western companies continued to demand ownership of the country’s oil. Iraq acted properly by refusing to cave to these demands.

Then came last week’s blockbuster: The Iraqi government came out in support of a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. First, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki mentioned the possibility during a trip to the United Arab Emirates. Then Iraq’s national security adviser stated that the Iraqi government was “impatiently waiting” for U.S. troops to leave the country, and that a timetable to do so would be ideal. U.S. government officials were unsurprisingly non-committal; perhaps a sovereign Iraqi government is desirable until it begins to form its own ideas. In any case, the call for a timetable was a major development – one that leaves both the Bush Administration and presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain in a tough spot. They have always maintained that our presence in Iraq is not an occupation, but if we begin to blatantly disregard the wishes of the government there we’ll be hard-pressed to avoid the obvious.

There are signs that the Bush Administration sees the writing on the wall. On Sunday, the Washington Post reported that negotiations between the U.S. and Iraqi governments over a long-term American military presence have broken down. Bush has long favored the idea of permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, and McCain has often compared the situation there to the continued U.S. military presence in South Korea. Instead, the Iraqi government refused to allow any long-term infringement of Iraqi sovereignty. The plans for permanent bases appear to be dead, and both governments are now negotiating a “bridge document” designed to cover 2009, thus leaving the long-term situation in Iraq up to the next U.S. president. Iraqi public opinion against a long-term occupation was simply too strong, regardless of those in the Bush-McCain camp.

This leaves us with an opening – one that Barack Obama, in an article he wrote for Monday’s New York Times, appears ready to seize. The Iraqis appear ready and willing for us to leave. At the same time, the situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate. At this point, the contrast between McCain and Obama could not be starker. One intends to get us out of Iraq and on the road to security, the other does not. When they stand up, we stand down, right?

John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]