Interesting developments going on over the past few days vis à vis plans and agreements for Iraq’s future. On Monday, Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, announced that he wanted to work out a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. troops:
Iraq said for the first time yesterday that it wanted to set a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from its territory.
President Bush has long resisted a schedule for pulling his 145,000 soldiers out, arguing that it would play into the hands of insurgents. Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia Prime Minister, who boasted last week that he had crushed terrorism in the country, suggested that it was time to start setting time-lines.
“The current trend is to reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or to put a timetable on their withdrawal,” Mr al-Maliki said during a visit to the United Arab Emirates. He rejected efforts by Mr Bush to hurry through an agreement on vital issues such as the immunity of US troops in Iraq and use of the country’s airspace. Mr Bush had hoped to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) by the end of July to establish the basis for a long-term presence of US troops in the country.
Naturally, John McCain was thrown for a loop by this unexpected obstacle blocking his path to 100 years in Iraq. Even more so because, back in 2004, he had said, during an event at the Council for Foreign Relations, that the United States should leave Iraq if Iraq asked us to:
Question: “What would or should we do if, in the post-June 30th period, a so-called sovereign Iraqi government asks us to leave, even if we are unhappy about the security situation there?”
McCain’s Answer: “Well, if that scenario evolves than I think it’s obvious that we would have to leave because — if it was an elected government of Iraq, and we’ve been asked to leave other places in the world. If it were an extremist government then I think we would have other challenges, but I don’t see how we could stay when our whole emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over to the Iraqi people.”
Adam Blickstein at Democracy Arsenal, quoting McCain’s words on that occasion, asks, “Does the John McCain of 2008 agree with this assessment?”
Well, today we get McCain’s answer on that…. kinda sorta:
For the first time on Monday, Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki said in a statement from his office that the two countries should consider deciding the future of American troops with “a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal.”
McCain was silent on the comments Monday. But today, his top foreign policy adviser declined to criticize Maliki or distance McCain from him. And they sought to portray Maliki’s comments as consistent with the Republican nominee’s long-standing position.
“Senator McCain has always said that conditions on the ground — including the security threats posed by extremists and terrorists, and the ability of Iraqi forces to meet those threats — would be key determinants in U.S. force levels,” said adviser Randy Scheunemann, who criticized Sen. Barack Obama’s “constantly shifting positions” on Iraq.
But McCain’s position on the question of a specific timetable for withdrawal has been shifting as the candidate moved from the Republican primary into the general election.
In speeches, town hall meetings, interviews and campaign commercials, McCain has said a timetable would provide terrorists the knowledge of how long they have to wait until American troops are gone. He has repeatedly said that setting a date for withdrawal would lead to “chaos, genocide and we will be back with greater sacrifice.”
On Tuesday, McCain’s campaign declined to respond directly to the question of whether he now supports the idea of setting a date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country.
Speaking on MSNBC Tuesday morning, McCain said that “The fact is that we and the Iraqis will deal in what is in the national security interests of both countries. And there is no reason to assume that the Iraqis aren’t going to act in what they perceive as their national
interest. I believe we will enact ours and I believe we will all come home.”
Meanwhile, the White House reacted to Maliki’s statement by trying to pretend it didn’t really mean what it really meant — only to be firmly set straight by Iraq’s National Security Adviser:
… White House spokesman Scott Stanzel tried to downplay the significance of Maliki’s comments. While acknowledging that any agreement would have “some understanding of time-frames,” Stanzel insisted that “these are not talks on a hard date for a withdrawal.”
Today, speaking with reporters in the Iraqi seminary city of Najaf after a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie essentially responded that, yes, these are talks on a hard date for withdrawal:
There should not be any permanent bases in Iraq unless these bases are under Iraqi control…We would not accept any memorandum of understanding with [the U.S.] side that has no obvious and specific dates for the foreign troops’ withdrawal from Iraq.
The fact that Rubaie made these remarks immediately after having met with Iraq’s senior ayatollah indicates that that they reflect Sistani’s views, or at the very least have his support. Though Sistani has been circumspect in his political involvement, over the past five years he has weighed in on on issues considered to be of specific import to the well-being of Iraq’s Shia community. That he may have done so now would indicate his belief that a firm timetable for American withdrawal is an important condition for Iraqi political progress.
The coming months should be very interesting….