THE BLOG
12/08/2008 02:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Withdrawing from the Empty Rhetoric on Iraq

The subtext of John McCain's response to the Iraqi government's strident assertions demanding clarity on the withdrawal of foreign forces in Iraq is this: For his own political gain, Maliki is just pandering to his political constituents who want to see American forces leave, but any eventual agreement will be vague, flexible and conditional enough to allow us to stay. McCain calling Malki "a politician" seems to further confirm this line of thinking. It also allows him to dismiss any clarion call for withdrawal as vacant political rhetoric and lets McCain continue advocating his policy of perpetual American presence in Iraq unabated. One problem: With Maliki, Iraq National Security Advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, and Iraqi spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh all concurrently expressing the same expectations of explicit withdrawal language in any security agreement, they are boxing themselves into those expectations amongst the Iraqi people.

If they cave to Bush administration demands and agree to vaguer language, then what message does that send to the Iraqi people? That their government still lacks the political will, power and general sovereignty to follow through on their own demands to an occupying force; that Maliki's word can't be trusted; that we can't trust anything the Iraqi government states publicly; that the Iraq government is in a perpetual state of weakness and needs our crutch in order to viably continue; that our presence allows the Maliki government to continue operating without taking significant risk and responsibility for itself? Any of these impressions would severely damage Maliki's standing amongst the Iraqi people, and possibly threaten to destabilize the viability of the Iraqi government itself.

Assertive statements on withdrawal shouldn't be disregarded out of hand, by McCain or anyone else. But that's exactly what he and the Bush administration are doing. Why would the Iraqi government gamble with their own viability by making these demands in the first place unless they were actually serious about following through on them? Certainly the "pandering to their own people" argument doesn't hold water because that would be too tenuous domestically and risk disintegrating all the political credibility the Maliki government built over the past several months.

And yet McCain is reacting like it's merely all empty rhetoric, a dangerous dismissal for any potential President to make about statements from a foreign government. Instead of seriously considering the possibility that Maliki, al-Rubaie, and al-Dabbagh's are being genuine, he reiterated that any agreement will be "dictated by situation on the ground." Last time I checked, explicit and consistent demands from the government of a sovereign nation are a large part of the "situation on the ground" and not just hollow oratory. But maybe for McCain, empty rhetoric is all he can conceive. It is, after all, something he should be extremely familiar with himself.