07/24/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

War Is Over (If Maliki Wants It)

You might have missed it, because there has been an astonishing lack of interest in this story in both the mainstream media and (surprisingly) the liberal blogosphere, but America's military involvement in Iraq may soon and irrevocably be drawing to a close. With timetables for withdrawal and everything!

That's right -- the Iraq war may soon be ending.

And (a key point) -- it may be over no matter who is the next President of the United States. Because the end may come from the Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki. But to understand how we got to this point, and what it could mean, we first have to review some recent history, both here and in Iraq itself.

The American military is occupying Iraq under an official mandate from the United Nations. This mandate was first passed in 2004 and has been renewed on a yearly basis since then. It's an arguably thin veneer of international acceptance of the situation on the ground (for what some argue was an illegal war to begin with), but it does provide a subsequent legal framework for our military to (1) be in Iraq in the first place, and (2) do what President Bush commands it to, in order to carry out the "mission" there. It's been called the equivalent of a Band-Aid on a severed limb, but it has been in place for four years now, and has been renewed every year before it runs out at the end of December, for an additional year's time. The current mandate runs out this December 31.

The Bush White House, together with the Iraqi government (for vastly different reasons), decided when the last mandate was renewed that 2008 would be different -- instead of renewing the U.N. mandate for 2009, the goal would be to negotiate a bilateral agreement between the two countries to allow American military forces to operate in Iraq next year. Another U.N. extension was not seen as desirable for either country.

President Bush, in a naked power grab, declared at the end of last year that such an agreement would be between him, personally, and the Iraqi government -- with no need for Senate (or any other congressional) consent or approval. This was a novel reading of the Constitution, but that's no surprise from the Bush White House (or, by this time, shouldn't be). Of course, Senate Democrats disagreed, and vowed to resist (perhaps by writing Bush a strongly worded letter, as they have been wont to do... ahem), but due to Maliki's current bold stand, this may not develop into the checks-and-balances issue the Democrats thought it might become. The Prime Minister of Iraq may avert our own Constitution crisis here at home, in other words.

Since last November, Bush's negotiators have been trying to hammer out two agreements -- a Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and a "strategic framework" (the Iraqis consider them both as a single agreement, and for the purposes of this article we will also do so here). This ran into a snag when the Iraqis saw Bush's initial draft. Starting about three months ago, the Iraqi negotiators began speaking to the press. Because what Bush wanted was stunning in its overreach.

Originally, Bush wanted 200 American military bases in Iraq. This number was scaled back to 58, which the Iraqis still considered way too many. The U.S. was also demanding to hold any Iraqis it captured without sending them through the Iraqi court system. We demanded immunity from the Iraqi court system not only for our military, but also for security contractors in Iraq (such as Blackwater). We demanded control over Iraqi airspace, and the right to refuel planes over Iraq without the consent or control of the Iraqis themselves. The American military in Iraq would not have to consult or get approval for any actions taken in Iraq from the Iraq government or military. The terms of this agreement were to be open-ended and permanent, and could only be changed after a two-year waiting period (which would lock the next president in for half his term). And, of course, there would be no talk of a timetable or any other date for withdrawal of American troops.

The Iraqis, understandably, balked. By taking the case to their own people (by leaking to the press), they insured that such an agreement would never be approved by the two-thirds parliamentary majority their constitution demanded. One of the members of Iraq's foreign relations committee close to Maliki was quoted at the time by the Washington Post with his reaction: "The Americans are making demands that would lead to the colonization of Iraq. If we can't reach a fair agreement, many people think we should say, 'Goodbye, U.S. troops. We don't need you here anymore.' "

This is exactly what is happening. The people of Iraq, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, started holding weekly Friday demonstrations against the agreement. This turned into a classic case of "When the people lead, the politicians will follow."

The Bush White House, realizing the disaster that was unfolding, tried belatedly to scale back their demands. They agreed that Blackwater-style contractors would not be immune from Iraqi law. They talked about some sort of veneer of Iraqi military mission control for American forces (more along the lines of "informing" the Iraqis then actually turning over command itself). Iraqi detainees would be turned over to the Iraqi courts... after the Americans were done with them, that is. A big concession was that the U.S. would agree not to use Iraq as a base to launch attacks on other countries -- a big worry in Iraq due to all the saber-rattling towards Iran (but then -- whoops! -- the White House had to backpedal on that one, since it definitely would have required Senate approval).

But none of it was enough to satisfy the vox populi within Iraq. Which is a pressing issue, since it's now a democracy. It's hard for Americans in general to see any foreign policy issue from the point of view of "the other guy," but that is exactly what is necessary here. Prime Minister Maliki is a politician, after all, with his own political problems within his country. He is a member of the Dawa Party, which is part of a very shaky coalition government. Since Iraq is a parliamentary system, his support depends on this coalition, or he will be replaced.

Call it the intersection of Iraqi election politics and American election politics. Now, Bush has been leaning heavily on the Iraqi government to hold local elections by the end of this October. I have commented before on how convenient this date is when you take America's own election calendar into consideration, going as far as predicting this was a planned "October Surprise" intended to give warm, fuzzy photos of Iraqis voting (remember all those "purple finger" images?) -- right before our own elections. Like I said, convenient.

But the Iraqis have been dragging their feet on this, and it is looking more and more likely that local elections in Iraq won"t happen in October, and may not even happen this year. The original plan was that after the local elections took place, next year parliamentary elections would follow -- meaning Maliki would be (in essence) up for re-election. And he, unlike Bush, is not term-limited out of a job, so he is assumably doing everything he can to shore up support in fears that his coalition will be booted out. As I said, he's a politician, so this shouldn't come as any surprise.

Without a microscopic examination of the seething cauldron of Iraqi partisan politics (which would take up way too much room here to do it justice), it's safe to say that Maliki knows which way the wind is blowing. He was originally put into office with the support of Sadr, and those throngs of people on the street every Friday chanting "NO!" to a status of forces agreement has undoubtedly been noticed by Maliki. The mood of the Iraqi people has been clear for a long time now, and can be summed up as: "When is the U.S. leaving? When will we be truly sovereign?"

We should all pause here to acknowledge the irony of Iraq schooling George Bush on the limits of democracy. Because the SOFA has to be approved by the Iraqi Parliament, and because they will never vote for a continued occupation by a foreign power (which they see as humiliation), they have changed what was supposed to be an end-run around the American Constitution (Bush stating he didn't have to get the consent of Congress) into a demand fueled by Iraq's voters that America leave. On a timetable.

Which was announced last weekend. The talks for Bush's two permanent bilateral agreements with Iraq have completely broken down. They are desperately trying to salvage something from the wreckage (because, as noted, neither side wants to extend the U.N. mandate again), but it will be a short-term "bridge" agreement that may be only six months long. Maliki, perhaps after consulting with Bush, is now suggesting his own end-run around the Iraqi Parliament, to avoid a vote altogether, for this short-term "bridge" agreement.

But Maliki knows that the only way he'll get away with this is if such an agreement has a date for America to pack its bags and go home. The details of this bridge agreement will likely be made public on the original schedule, by the end of this month. Bush has been left quibbling about the language it will have -- the difference between "timetables," a "time horizon," or (the new phrasing) an "aspirational goal."

But whatever it's eventually called after the semantic word-splitting is done, the result is going to be the same. Both George Bush and Republican presidential candidate John McCain have stated publicly that "if the Iraqis ask us to leave, then we of course will leave," or words to that effect. Bush even mentioned the possibility in his original "surge" speech in January last year. Neither Bush nor McCain likely dreamed that it would ever happen, certainly not before our election. But now Maliki has called their bluff.

Of course, the bridge agreement's language isn't public yet, and I would be willing to bet that there's some serious arm-twisting happening over it. But this time it may not work. The Iraqis may have reached the point where it doesn't matter what Bush wants any more. They are responding to their own people now, and not the White House.

So, whether Bush and McCain like it or not (and with massive apologies beforehand to John Lennon and Yoko Ono), the epitaph of America's involvement in Iraq may wind up being:

"War is over. (If Maliki wants it.)"


Chris Weigant blogs at: