Barack in Iraq

The hullabaloo over Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s quasi-endorsement of Obama’s withdrawal plan won’t be dying down anytime soon—and it will continue to give John McCain grief.

The interview that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave to Der Spiegel last week should have been anticlimactic. The Bush administration, after all, dealt with its first, most serious eruption of Iraqi sovereignty earlier this month, when al-Maliki told Arab ambassadors in Abu Dhabi on July 8:

The current trend is to reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal.

If there was any doubt about how deliberate Maliki had been in Abu Dhadi, Iraq's national-security adviser, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, would have quashed it, when a day later he told reporters after meeting with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani:

Our stance in the negotiations underway with the American side will be strong. . . . We will not accept any memorandum of understanding that doesn't have specific dates to withdraw foreign forces from Iraq.

Maliki had not yet uttered Obama's name in discussing a timetable for a withdrawal, but the political impact of Maliki's comments should have been clear. One American presidential candidate has made a timetable-withdrawal from Iraq a pivotal element of his foreign-policy agenda, while the other has made the lack of such a timetable the center of his. Maliki was clearly endorsing an aspect of Obama's Iraq plan. The likeness of Maliki and Obama's position should have instigated lively debate about the potential significance of having both leaders agree on a course of action of such monumental importance. Yet congruous views of Maliki and Obama were noted only sparingly, relative to their significance. Maliki had to refer to Obama by name before their convergence on a timetable became so breathlessly commented on-and sometimes distorted.

Indeed, that fervor has much of the Beltway opinionati debating the meaning of the word. While it is true that what Maliki and Obama are proposing is not identical, they concede both in principle and on many details. Indeed, an editorial published yesterday in the Washington Post, "Mr. Obama in Iraq; Did he really find support for his withdrawal plan?" grossly overstates the significance of apparent disagreements, which are apparently limited to the seven-month difference of Maliki and Obama's plans. The Post points to the fact that the Iraqi government has called for some contingencies on the timetable, relative to conditions on the ground. But Obama has also reserved the ability to do so in repeated public statements (a point the the Post also makes, without conceding that such a position narrows any difference with the Iraqis). The Post would have demonstrated greater intellectual integrity by reiterating its arguments against a timetable withdrawal, rather than obfuscating the striking convergence of Maliki and Obama's views. Importantly, the Post editorial at no point states that Maliki himself specifically supported Obama's plan in the Der Spiegel interview-a fact clearly relevant to the editorial's subject matter.

In that interview, Maliki said: "US presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes." In the wake of the political fervor his comments generated, a spokesperson for Maliki said his comments were not conveyed accurately but failed to point out any inconsistency. And the Iraqi prime minister has not specifically backed away from his support for Obama's plan-which is the source of the controversy. Further, the Iraqi government itself provided the translation of Maliki's comments and others that have seen Maliki's original statements agree the translation is accurate.

Despite Iraq's after-the-fact back peddling, the sum and progression of Maliki's statements make clear that his recent calls for a timetable-withdrawal will be reiterated; they could grow more forceful and become more difficult to minimize. Maliki has been measured in his statements, calling first in Abu Dubai for a timetable and only subsequently referencing Obama's plan by name-and even then in comments to a German, not U.S., publication. Maliki appears to be pacing his public statements, allowing one news cycle to conclude before intensifying the political impact of his comments.

The Bush administration has demonstrated some political dexterity in proposing, in vague terms, for a "time horizon" for a removal of U.S. forces from Iraq, potentially indicating that Iraqi demands for a U.S. withdrawal will be unrelenting. Such a proposition surely attempts to blur the Bush administration's consistent opposition to a timetable with the Iraqis' public demands for such a strategy.

The McCain camp is demonstrating no such agility, relying instead on generating general fear of Obama as a candidate. In calling for a withdrawal, Obama is showing he is "frighteningly inexperienced," it said. For McCain, Iraqi sovereignty-and calls for a phased U.S. withdrawal-could become a persistent problem. Washington and Baghdad agreed last November on a July 31 deadline to negotiate a security pact on long-term foreign-troop levels in Iraq. According to news reports, the Iraqis are demanding that such a pact include a timeline for a withdrawal, though it would include some room for modification according to security conditions.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said on July 3 that if the two countries failed to sign the deal then Iraq may have to ask for the renewal of the UN mandate (which expires in December 2008 and is seen as proving the legal basis for U.S.-led forces in Iraq) or sign a separate bilateral deal with Washington.