Finding a new SOFA

We begin this column with a disclaimer: We will not be discussing whether the original decision to invade Iraq was justified, or moral, or right. Not because itâÄôs an unimportant issue (quite the opposite), but simply due to space concerns. As of this moment, the U.S. government is attempting to hammer out a Status of Forces Agreement with the young Iraqi government. It is proving to be a rather difficult process, to say the least. First, letâÄôs lay down a bit of background information, just so everyone is on the same page. The U.N. mandate that legalizes U.S. presence in Iraq expires when we flip the calendar to 2009. Without a new agreement, any American occupation of Iraq after that date would violate international law. Needless to say, that scenario is not in our best interest. To avoid that unpleasant scenario, U.S. and Iraqi governments have spent the better part of this year attempting to reach an agreement to legitimize the American presence there. (The Bush administration has avoided calling this agreement a âÄútreaty,âÄù as to avoid the necessary congressional approval.) A draft of this agreement has been making the rounds in Washington over the past week or so, and it contains some fascinating tidbits. Remember when President George W. Bush told us how awful the idea of a firm withdrawal timetable was? Well, the draft of the agreement requires that all U.S. forces leave Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011. We have to pull out of Iraqi cities even earlier than that: June 2009. Any change of these dates requires the consent of both governments involved, effectively ending the autonomous U.S. occupation of Iraq. Even though our administration has long maintained that such deadlines would deal a serious blow to our operations in the region, the White House appeared ready to sign off on such a bill. ThatâÄôs due in large part to some serious political miscalculations. The United States chose not to seek an extension of the U.N. mandate âÄî the idea was, seemingly, to use a looming deadline to force the Iraqi governmentâÄôs hand. That strategy seems to have backfired, as the Iraqis have shown willingness to stand toe-to-toe with American negotiators. Suddenly, the December deadline is putting pressure on the American side instead: we canâÄôt stay past the U.N. mandate. Now our backs are against the wall. Iraqi negotiators seem aware of the predicament, using it to wring concessions out of the American side that would have seemed impossible a few months ago âÄî the firm withdrawal date among them. But then negotiations hit another, more significant bump: Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki is refusing to sign on to (what was thought to be) the final agreement. The reasons for this collapse are many, but political concerns seem to be driving the disagreement. Iraqis have expressed reluctance to deal with a lame-duck Bush administration, figuring that it makes little sense to negotiate with a government that will soon be out of power. And internal Iraqi politics are also playing a major role âÄî provincial elections in Iraq are coming up, and politicians there are reluctant to risk political defeat by taking a stand on the current agreement. So where does that leave us? At this point, it seems likely that the Iraqis will pursue an extension of the U.N. mandate so that they can negotiate a final agreement with the new U.S. administration. ThatâÄôs probably for the best: allowing the Bush administration to negotiate an agreement that would tie down the next president seems like a pretty bad idea. And the two contenders for the presidency have very different perspectives on how to proceed. Barack ObamaâÄôs approach would seem to fit more neatly, based on the conditions of the proposed agreement. The 2011 withdrawal date is even less aggressive than ObamaâÄôs stated target goal, but with one significant twist: Obama has long maintained a desire to keep a small number of troops in Iraq to carry out training missions and the like. But when asked by TIME magazine about the proposed SOFA, Obama seemed to be on board. If thatâÄôs the case, itâÄôs the first time Obama has clearly supported a full withdrawal from Iraq. John McCainâÄôs position would be trickier. HeâÄôs been more vocal in advocating for a long-term American presence in Iraq, painting those who disagree with him as defeatists. Assuming the Iraqi government would continue to demand concessions like a firm withdrawal date and Iraqi jurisdiction over off-duty U.S. troops (both provisions in the latest draft of the agreement), a President McCain would have to drastically re-evaluate his approach. Ever since the Bush administration began negotiating the long-term SOFA with the Iraqis, their intentions seemed clear: to lock the next president into a sustained occupation. Luckily, that no longer appears likely. Instead, next week the American electorate will have the chance to decide which approach they prefer: ObamaâÄôs or McCainâÄôs. In either case, the existing draft of the agreement will serve as a useful starting point. The next U.S. president will be taking office in the face of myriad challenges, Iraq included. If the incoming administration is able to seize upon the existing framework and mould it into something acceptable to both sides, we will have cleared a major hurdle. After that, all weâÄôll have to do is deal with health care, the economy, education, energy âĦ and how hard could that really be? John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]