There were two news reports over the weekend about Iraq that George Bush wasn't prepared for, and both the White House and John McCain have been slow to address them. This opens up a window of opportunity for Barack Obama, one that he has already begun to take advantage of. But he needs to do so more succinctly and more forcefully in the next few days, before the Republicans regroup and try to frame it in their own terms.
The first piece of bad news for Bush was that his efforts to tie the hands of his successor on Iraq are apparently toast. Bush tried to foist a "Status Of Forces Agreement" (SOFA) on the Iraqis which would have continued the U.S. military presence there for a long time to come. But the Iraqis balked, and are now demanding that any such agreement include a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops. Not exactly what Bush had in mind, to put it mildly.
Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote of this possibility, in an article titled "Will Maliki Get The U.S. Out Of Iraq?":
If [Iraqi Prime Minister] Maliki ... publicly starts calling for a withdrawal timetable or schedule for American troops, then our involvement with the Iraq war will be over. Not immediately, but indeed inevitably.
Because Bush will then have the political cover he so desperately needs. Bush was asked at a press conference earlier this year what he would do if Maliki asked us to leave, and he unequivocally stated that Iraq is a sovereign state, and that if they asked us to leave, then we would. So he's already on record supporting this basic concept.
This is exactly what is happening now. The Iraqi negotiators are demanding a timeline for withdrawal. Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that negotiations for a long-term SOFA plan have basically collapsed, and now they're hoping to salvage a short-term "bridge" agreement and leave long-term negotiations until next year -- after we have sworn in a new American president.
From the article (which is worth reading to understand the details of how we got to this point):
U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have abandoned efforts to conclude a comprehensive agreement governing the long-term status of U.S troops in Iraq before the end of the Bush presidency, according to senior U.S. officials, effectively leaving talks over an extended U.S. military presence there to the next administration.
In place of the formal status-of-forces agreement negotiators had hoped to complete by July 31, the two governments are now working on a "bridge" document, more limited in both time and scope, that would allow basic U.S. military operations to continue beyond the expiration of a U.N. mandate at the end of the year.
The failure of months of negotiations over the more detailed accord -- blamed on both the Iraqi refusal to accept U.S. terms and the complexity of the task -- deals a blow to the Bush administration's plans to leave in place a formal military architecture in Iraq that could last for years.
Although President Bush has repeatedly rejected calls for a troop withdrawal timeline, "we are talking about dates," acknowledged one U.S. official close to the negotiations. Iraqi political leaders "are all telling us the same thing. They need something like this in there. ... Iraqis want to know that foreign troops are not going to be here forever."
Add to this the fact that our own "generals on the ground" appear likely to recommend more troops coming out of Iraq before the election, and you can see it wasn't a very good weekend for Bush. Or for McCain, for that matter, since his whole Iraq rationale is based upon a stunning piece of doublethink -- the "surge" has been a whopping success; but if we withdraw now, we would be "surrendering" and chaos would ensue in short order, leaving Al Qaeda in charge of Iraq's oil. The fact that this is an enormous contradiction does not seem to have dawned on McCain (or the Republicans), and now it is painfully evident that he's going to have to change his tune swiftly. Because John McCain (like Bush) is also on record saying that if the Iraqis ask us to leave, then we will indeed leave.
Now that the Iraqis are doing so, McCain's going to have to come up with some new spin to explain why Barack Obama and Maliki are now singing from the same songbook on timetables for withdrawal.
But while Bush and McCain are down, they will indeed bounce back, in the very near future. The spin they will use will be VICTORY! as in "we can now talk about timetables for withdrawal in Iraq because we have achieved a stunning VICTORY! and it is now safe and prudent to do so."
Barack Obama, to his credit, has already jumped on this opportunity, with a well-reasoned and intelligent op-ed article in today's New York Times. In it, he says:
The call by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for a timetable for the removal of American troops from Iraq presents an enormous opportunity. We should seize this moment to begin the phased redeployment of combat troops that I have long advocated, and that is needed for long-term success in Iraq and the security interests of the United States.
The differences on Iraq in this campaign are deep. Unlike Senator John McCain, I opposed the war in Iraq before it began, and would end it as president. I believed it was a grave mistake to allow ourselves to be distracted from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban by invading a country that posed no imminent threat and had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Since then, more than 4,000 Americans have died and we have spent nearly $1 trillion. Our military is overstretched. Nearly every threat we face -- from Afghanistan to Al Qaeda to Iran -- has grown.
In the 18 months since President Bush announced the surge, our troops have performed heroically in bringing down the level of violence. New tactics have protected the Iraqi population, and the Sunni tribes have rejected Al Qaeda -- greatly weakening its effectiveness.
But the same factors that led me to oppose the surge still hold true. The strain on our military has grown, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated and we've spent nearly $200 billion more in Iraq than we had budgeted. Iraq's leaders have failed to invest tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues in rebuilding their own country, and they have not reached the political accommodation that was the stated purpose of the surge.
The good news is that Iraq's leaders want to take responsibility for their country by negotiating a timetable for the removal of American troops. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, the American officer in charge of training Iraq's security forces, estimates that the Iraqi Army and police will be ready to assume responsibility for security in 2009.
Obama's full article is brilliantly written, and well worth reading, as he effectively counters all the arguments the Republicans will doubtlessly use against him, in a pre-emptive fashion. But while it's a great piece of writing, and a sound and well thought out policy, he needs to shorten his main points into soundbites, and then repeat them for the next week or so (in order to get the ideas through the "stupidity filter" that television news routinely uses for any nuanced and intelligent political thoughts).
Here are the main points Obama needs to make:
Like I said, there is a short window of opportunity here, before the Republican spinmeisters decide how to react to Maliki's demand for a timetable for withdrawal. Their reaction is entirely predictable -- VICTORY! -- and will be coming soon to a cable television show near you. Barack Obama has already started to frame this argument on his terms, and he needs to continue these efforts before McCain's campaign wakes up to the new reality on the ground. For once, it's a piece of cake for the Democrats to frame this to their benefit, and they should do so every chance they get in the near future:
"Timetables are the way to go. The Iraqis agree. The Republicans are finally coming around to realize this, and move toward what has long been the Democratic plan for Iraq. If John McCain doesn't get on board soon, then he is just not qualified to lead this country."
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com