As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What He Said He Would Do

I've been taken in by the hype and have CNN on watching the scene on the National Mall and at the US Capitol. The picture-in-picture reading "Obama at St. John's Church" that looks like a stakeout cam is, well, interesting.

Before we go all inauguration all day, I just wanted to reiterate that Obama appears to have really thought about his campaign promises and will seek to deliver on them. Right before the election I had a conversation with a conservative friend who was sure that Obama wouldn't leave Iraq, that he would drag his feet and reassess the situation once he reached the seat of power. Well, no. He's going to begin the withdrawal on day one, with the goal of a full withdrawal of combat troops within 16 months and all troops by the end of 2011. I think it should be faster, but this is exactly what he said in the campaign, and he's holding to it. Kevin Drum writes:

I'm not surprised either. In fact, so far Obama has given every sign — both for good and ill — of taking campaign trail promises unusually seriously. I know it's premature to say that with any authority, but on taxes and stimulus and DADT and Iraq and a slew of other issues, I've been impressed with how seldom he's given any indication of either backing down from promises or adding in lots of stuff he once said he was against.

Iraq is probably the easiest of these policies on which to follow through, because his predecessor executed a signed agreement with the Iraqi government mandating a withdrawal. In order to ensure a positive vote on the agreement in the July referendum, troops will have to get out of the major cities, per the agreement, by June, to at least show the American commitment to the agreement. In a charitable moment, Marc Lynch credits the President for two-more-hours George W. Bush with his judgment on signing the SOFA.

Signing a Status of Forces Agreement requiring the full withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq on a fixed three year timeline demonstrated a real flexibility on Bush's part. It demonstrated a pragmatism and willingness to put the national interest ahead of partisanship that few of us believed he possessed. It is largely thanks to Bush's acceptance of his own bargaining failure that Barack Obama will inherit a plausible route to successful disengagement from Iraq.

Conservatives now like to claim the SOFA as a "Bush-negotiated" success. But Bush entered the SOFA negotiations looking for something entirely different than what emerged at the end. The U.S. went into the SOFA talks intent on obtaining legitimacy for a long-term military presence in Iraq once the Security Council mandate ended. When negotiations began, it was widely assumed that Bush would extract from the Iraqis an agreement which made the removal of U.S. troops entirely contingent upon American assessments of conditions on the ground. There were widespread discussions of permanent U.S. bases and a Korea-style presence for generations, an assumption that the U.S. would retain a free hand in its operations, and an absolute rejection of an Obama-style timeline for withdrawal.

But Iraqi leaders, to most everyone's surprise, took a hard line in the negotiations. Their tough line was encouraged by Iran, no doubt, as stressed by many frustrated American commentators. But it also reflected Iraqi domestic considerations, including several rounds of upcoming elections and an intensely strong popular Iraqi hostility to the U.S. occupation under any name. The Iraqis were also helped by the calender. As negotiations dragged on, the December 31 deadline loomed large, threatening to leave the U.S. troops without any legal mandate to remain in the country and forcing the hand of American negotiators. Finally, the Iraqi leaders clearly kept a careful eye on the American Presidential elections and used Obama's stance to strengthen their own hand in negotiations.

And here's where I will offer some sincere praise for Bush and his team. When the Iraqis insisted on an Obama-style timeline for U.S. withdrawal instead of a Bush/McCain- style conditions-based aspirational time frame for U.S. withdrawal, he could have insisted on the latter. This would have fit with his administration's often-repeated preferences. He could have continued to push for this conception closer to the December 31 deadline, playing high-stakes chicken at the expense of American military planning for the coming year and at the risk of the Iraqi political system not having adequate time to ratify the deal.

But he didn't. To his credit, Bush agreed to the Obama-style timeline for U.S. withdrawal. Granted, he hedged -- he didn't authorize Ambassador Ryan Crocker to sign off on the deal until after the Presidential election (on November 18). But at that point he bowed to the political realities in the U.S. and Iraq and agreed to a SOFA which far more closely matched Obama's avowed vision for Iraq -- withdrawal of U.S. forces in three years, no permanent bases -- than his own. Thanks to this pragmatism, Obama can now work closely with the Iraqi government in managing the drawdown instead of spending his first months in office trying to wriggle out of an unacceptable deal. And this, I might speculate, is among the reasons why Robert Gates will continue as Secretary of Defense.

I see it somewhat differently. The Iraqis successfully backed Bush into a corner. They are the ones who played chicken, who set things up for the military forces to be illegally on Iraqi soil by the end of December. They were stubborn and unyielding and they had the advantage of a deadline. They would have forced an international crisis on Bush's watch, at the end of his term. And so he buckled.

It was exactly the way that George Bush bent the Democrats to their will for eight years. The Iraqis managed to block his intentions better than the Democrats ever did.

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