Bush, Maliki pave way for permanent U.S. presence

BEIRUT — With all eyes turned to Annapolis, another significant development happened regarding Iraq. President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a “Declaration of Principles” that would pave the way for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) on a long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq. (And by “long-term” I mean longer than 2013.)

Coincidentally — or not, giving the political season upon us — the deadline for finalizing the agreement, which would include the number of U.S. troops as well as the length of their deployment, is set for July 31. That’s just in time for heating up the 2008 presidential campaign! Ah, I can see it now. Victory parades, bilateral agreements with a sovereign Iraq, Democrats on the defensive. Nicely played, Mr. President.

The plan is also to extend the U.N. mandate to permit Coalition troops one more time until the end of 2008, just three weeks before Bush leaves office. By then, the SOFA should be finalized and the new president will have his or her hands effectively tied with regards to troop withdrawals.

Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the Iraq czar in the White House, said the agreement would contribute to regional stability by making Iran feel nervous. (Well, he didn’t say that, but that’s what he meant.)

General Lute predicted that the agreement to negotiate formal bilateral relations would contribute to regional stability by proving America’s long-term commitment not just to Iraq, but also to the broader Persian Gulf area. A recurring message of senior Bush administration officials, intended in large part to deter what they see as Iranian mischief in the region, is to reassure Persian Gulf allies of a continued American presence there.

Reaction from Iraq is not so positive toward the new diplomacy, although many Iraqis are conflicted. They don’t want to be occupied any more, but neither do they want the U.S. to leave too soon and leave Iraq to slide back into chaos. Buried in the Times‘ story is a nugget of interest: the U.S. has pledged to improve its new friend’s economy by supporting Iraq in receiving “preferential trading conditions,” including joining the World Trade Organization and receiving most-favored-nation trading status with Washington.

Security-wise, this is the agreement that lays the foundations for permanent bases in Iraq, which is exactly what the Bush administration has denied over for the last five years. Part of the Declaration reads:

Security: To support the Iraqi government in training, equipping, and arming the Iraqi Security Forces so they can provide security and stability to all Iraqis; support the Iraqi government in contributing to the international fight against terrorism by confronting terrorists such as Al-Qaeda, its affiliates, other terrorist groups, as well as all other outlaw groups, such as criminal remnants of the former regime; and to provide security assurances to the Iraqi Government to deter any external aggression and to ensure the integrity of Iraq’s territory. (Emphasis added.)

Hmmm. Provide security assurances to deter any external aggression? Who could that be aimed at? Iran, perhaps? Well, yeah, as noted above, but don’t forget that of the myriad of reasons given for invading Iraq, the one not spoken — but the one that makes the most sense from a national security standpoint — is to use Iraq as a strategic base to intimidate not only Iran but Syria and even Saudi Arabia, if need be. (I made reference to this in a somewhat muddled post way back in 2003.)

So there you have it: Economic development with most-favored-nation status (Oil!), a permanent military presence of some kind and a, shall we say, muscular stance towards Iran. The question now is what do the presidential candidates have to say about this?