IN Monday's Post, I discussed how Barack Obama,
during his July trip, had asked Iraqi leaders not to finalize an
agreement vital to the future of US forces in Iraq - and how the effect
of such a delay would be to postpone the departure of the US from Iraq
beyond the time Obama himself calls for.
The Obama campaign has objected. While its statement says my article
was "filled with distortions," the rebuttal actually centers on a
technical point: the differences between two Iraqi-US accords under
negotiation - the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA, to set rules
governing US military personnel in Iraq) and the Strategic Framework
Agreement (SFA, to settle the legal basis for the US military presence
in Iraq in the months and years ahead).
The Obama camp says I confused the two. It continues: "On the
Status of Forces Agreement, Sen. Obama has always said he hoped that
the US and Iraq would complete it - but if they did not, the option of
extending the UN mandate should be considered.
"As to the Strategic Framework Agreement, Sen. Obama has
consistently said that any security arrangements that outlast this
administration should have the backing of the US Congress - especially
given the fact that the Iraqi parliament will have the opportunity to
vote on it."
If there is any confusion, it's in Obama's position - for the two
agreements are interlinked: You can't have any US military presence
under one agreement without having settled the other accord. (Thus, in
US-Iraqi talks, the aim is a comprehensive agreement that covers both
SOFA and SFA.)
And 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
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
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
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
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 Asharqalawsat.com)
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
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.