What a difference a month makes! Just a few days before meeting with Mr. Obama, the Iraqis agreed yesterday to commit the US to a “time horizon” for withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq, a significant shift by a lame duck president who has long opposed setting target dates for ending the war.
The president struck the agreement with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Friday as part of negotiations over the long-term future of US forces in Iraq.
A White House spokesman denied the agreement represented a U-turn, arguing it was consistent with existing strategy to gradually hand control back to the Iraqis as security improved. “These are aspirational goals, not arbitrary timetables based on political expediency,” he said.
Mr. Obama has reformulated his position on the withdrawal of US forces so many times—latterly twice in the space of a few days—that one’s head spins. The McCain campaign has produced an eight-minute video compilation of these iterations, and it hits home. Most recently, Mr. Obama has again stiffened his commitment to bring combat troops home within 16 months of the election, playing down any conditions and qualifications.
Meanwhile, there is growing bipartisan consensus over the need to accelerate the troop drawdown in Iraq and increase troop numbers in Afghanistan, where violence is worsening.
What seemed even more incredible were the Iraqi demands: Iraqi lawmakers rejected the United States demands for 58 bases as part of a proposed "status of forces" agreement that will allow U.S. troops to remain in the country indefinitely.
Leading members of the two ruling Shiite parties said in a series of interviews that the Iraqi government rejected this proposal along with another U.S. demand that would effectively hand over the power to determine whether a hostile act from another country is aggression against Iraq. Lawmakers said they fear this power would drag Iraq into a war between the United States and Iran.
Both Saghir and Adeeb said the Iraqi government rejected the terms as unacceptable. They said the government wants a U.S. presence and a U.S. security guarantee but wants to control security within the country, stop indefinite detentions of Iraqis by U.S. forces and have a say in U.S. forces' conduct in Iraq. They even demanded a “timetable for withdrawal of all American troops.”
Could it be that an impending end of Republican rule has made all of these changes possible? Does the Iraqi government feel an imminent Obama victory and they are simply adapting to their new reality?
Mr. Obama will need to avoid seeming to take his victory in November for granted: that would arouse resentment back home. And he must not accept the acclaim of those who loathe President George W. Bush and all his works too eagerly: that also would go down badly. Americans have a low opinion of their president, but do not always care to hear foreigners (some of whom might be anti-American, after all) express similar contempt.