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Iraqi politicians backed into a corner on a Status of Forces Agreement?



Foreign Policy features an interview with Jim Jeffrey, the former US Ambassador to Iraq during Status of Forces negotiations. The interview suffers a mildly buried lede, at least for those previously aware (despite political rhetoric to the contrary) that the Obama administration made an attempt to keep some stabilizing forces in Iraq. Excerpts from the interview are below [emphasis mine]:

Jeffrey didn't necessarily support the larger troop footprint envisioned by military leaders at the time, which reportedly ranged from 8,000 to 16,000 to 24,000 troops, depending on the military official. But he said he firmly believed that troops in Iraq past 2011 were needed and wanted by the Iraqi government.
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Jeffrey was a key player on both the Washington and Baghdad sides of the 2011 negotiations that were meant to agree on a follow on force to extend the Bush administration's Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) after it was set to expire last December. Those negotiations ultimately failed. The White House has said the Iraqis refused to grant immunity for U.S. troops in Iraq after 2011 and submit a new SOFA through their own parliament, two things the United States needed to extend the troops' mission.

Jeffrey said that he and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki personally discussed the idea of extending the U.S. troop presence in Iraq via an executive agreement, which would not have to go through the Iraqi parliament.

"Maliki said at one point, 'Why don't we just do this as an executive agreement?'" Jeffrey said. "I didn't think he was serious, and I didn't think he had thought it through."

But ultimately, the Iraqis did insist that a new SOFA had to go through their parliament and they would not budge on the immunities issue, which made an extension of U.S. forces there impossible, Jeffrey said. He said the insistence on immunity was uniform inside the Obama administration.

The ambassador seems to contradict himself, or at least portrays an evolved, contradictory position of the Iraqis on whether they wanted a contentious political debate over any agreement. The spin that "ultimately, the Iraqis did insist that a new SOFA had to go through their parliament" is diluted by his preceding statements and by reporting from Michael Gordon of The New York Times verifying that it was the Obama administration pushing legislative approval. Thus, to the extent the Iraqis took up that position, it seems to have been after US officials made it a necessity.

Jeffrey's revelation that the Iraqis wanted a continued US presence, and that Maliki privately broached the idea of using an executive order to avoid a messy parliamentary fight echoes a point that I made in the Fall edition of InFocus Quarterly:

But recent reporting by The New York Times' Michael Gordon paints a more complicated picture of U.S. incompetence and disengagement. Most notably, the Obama administration's insistence that any Status of Forces Agreement be ratified by Iraq's parliament set the stage for the inevitable failure of any agreement.

Simply put, while a number of Iraqi political leaders may have privately wished for continued American involvement to serve as a buffer and broker between both domestic rivals and neighboring regimes, far fewer were willing to support this position in a public, contentious debate. No one wants to be regarded as an American stooge in the prideful arena of Iraqi politics. Backing parliamentarians into a corner by demanding public ratification doomed a new SOFA to failure.

The Obama administration's reluctance to apply influence, in addition to its apparent abandonment of allies from the Sunni Awakening, are inexplicable, given the value of a politically stable Iraq in a region beset by rising Iranian influence and resurgent Salafist-Jihadist terrorism.



READER COMMENTS: "Iraqi politicians backed into a corner on a Status of Forces Agreement?"

Posted by My2Cents at November 16, 2012 11:17 AM ET:

Nothing incompetent about it. The Obama administration knew they could not just pull the troops out without setting themselves up for a political disaster, so they insisted on the Parliamentary approval knowing it would fail and they could then blame the Iraqi government for forcing an US pullout when things turned to slime.

And the Obama administration is now repeating the process in Afghanistan.

Posted by Tony at November 16, 2012 12:21 PM ET:

Why should we risk our troops to support these corrupt dictator wannabes? Iraq is much more aligned with Iran than with us, and will be for the foreseeable future. Neither firepower nor bribery will change that, but only set us up for sacrifices that buy us nothing. We never should have gone to Iraq in the first place, and should not have stayed more than 12-18 months. Pulling out was the smartest thing we've done since 9/11/01.

Posted by NVR at November 16, 2012 3:25 PM ET:

Obama made the right call. For the US military to have remained,after the previously agreed to departure date,and without any approval by the Iraqi parliament for an amendment,it would have had disastrous consequences for the USA.

The Iraqi public would have been mortified, the rebel and tribal groups would have been up in arms, Iran would continue to beat their propaganda drum and the religious terrorists would have used this as their new cause celibate.

Of course Maliki would have liked the US to stay longer, his family, friends, political cronies, as well as himself have grown very rich from bribes,kick backs from US companies and security companies,as well as skimming off from our US aid projects.

Their was absolutely no upside for the US to remain behind as it was.

Posted by Scott at November 16, 2012 11:12 PM ET:

I am the parent of a U.S. Marine who fought and was wounded in Iraq. I am a strong supporter of our troops, and I have supported their missions.

However, I am glad our troops are out of Iraq. Our objectives were to get rid of an enemy - Saddam Hussein and his government - and to give the Iraqis a chance at freedom. We did that, thanks in no small part to the bravery and sacrifice of our troops.

I believe that by the time the last of our troops left Iraq, they had been successful and victorious, and they had done everything humanly possible to set Iraq in a positive direction. A very difficult job, but a job well done.

Now, the future of Iraq is in the hands of the Iraqis, as it should be. And they and they alone may receive the credit, or the blame, for the decisions they make for their own country. It's their country, not ours.

Posted by Haakon Dahl at November 17, 2012 8:14 PM ET:

All that was accomplished here was the conversion of success into failure.

Posted by Janda Brown at November 18, 2012 7:00 AM ET:

Consider this, Shiite dominated Iraq is allowing transhipment by ground and air of Iranian war making supplies to the west with ultimate destinations to partners in terrorist crimes- their Ba'athist/Shia sect guru Assad of Syria and Hezbollah Shiite terrorists in Lebanon. SOFA worked for Germany, Japan and Korea. Why not SOFA for Iraq? The next war we get may be one we didn't start. Especially since these same Iranian trucks heading back to Iran through Iraq are returning chock full of embargoed goods bought in Iraq which the UN says are not to be sold to Iran. Without SOFA the UN embargoes are neutered and the atomic weapons of Iran lie on a closer horizon. We did not win the war in Iraq, but we sure are going to lose it.

Posted by occam at November 18, 2012 9:11 AM ET:

All Sadr would never have gone along with it and HE elected Maliki

Posted by irebukeu at November 18, 2012 11:40 AM ET:

Obama was correct IMO to insist on a legislative approval by the Iraqi congress for a SOFA because the approval would signify the approval of the Iraqi people. Obama was not going to allow, to his credit, American military forces to come under the law of Sharia in any form, be it in interpretation of the Quran or in the form of modern codified laws based on the quran. He was not going to do that so IMO that was the major hurdle that was never surmounted. It was a deal breaker from the start.

Posted by Yellow Devil at November 20, 2012 1:34 PM ET:

By itself, I would say this is no big deal. However, in context with the rest of this administration's failed foreign policy (particularly when it comes to the middle east), this is just another straw that continues to be thrown "on the camel's back". Although I agree that ultimately it is up to the Iraqis to define their path, it would not have hurt to keep some residual forces on the ground. Not a lot is needed, only 5000 (at most), but enough to signal that we are still involved for the near future,a s well as deterrence to Iran. Now we have almost zero leverage and this was especially prevalent with Iran giving permission to gun run to Syria through Iraq, as well as the release of Musa Ali Daqduq the Hezbollah leader. I read some articles that the Iraq government was looking to us for guidance during the political gridlock but the Obama administration was just not interested. Sad we have come to this, especially since I spent two deployments getting to know some of the people there.

Posted by Todd at November 29, 2012 11:42 AM ET:

What is largely lost in this "rush" to leave Iraq is the realpolitik of the region. Leaving Iraq without any semblance of a functional order of battle for its military was flat out negligence. They have tanks but no artillery, they do not have an Air Force of any kind capable of providing air space sovereignty and they are very divided between north and south.

They are not, in fact aligned with Iran. Part of the country is, part is not and part is "flexible". The fact that Iran can now run whatever it wants across the country to get to Syria is not stabilizing to the region in any sense.

We left thousands of troops in Europe for 70 years, some of that time "might" have been necessary to interdict a Soviet threat but when it became clearly obvious that US forces were the guardians of Europe and any Soviet intervention would easily chew up whatever paltry attempt was made by the Europeans to throw long haired conscripts at them until they hit the US Forces "wall" instead of actually arming themselves to properly defend themselves, nobody in the US seemed to care much.

But in Iraq, where the end state would have been focused on US forces to provide ISR services, Air defense and general support services (all of which could have been orchestrated from places out of sight and out of mind like Al Asad, all manner of protest occurred.

That US servicemen and women died in Iraq is sad, but what is sadder is an Iraq destabilized by the US because we were unwilling to do the hard work of saying no to combat forces while committing to logistics and general support functions to help the Iraq's continue the fight for true sovereignty. They are now quite naked and incapable of posing a serious deterrent to anyone who might have kinetic designs against them. In short, we missed the opportunity that we generously took in Europe and we may well pay dearly for that. Certainly our allies in the region will.

On one last word, it befuddles me why we did not take the opportunity to establish our presence in Kurdistan for the long term. We chose to focus on the mess in Baghdad when our only serious and committed "allies" are north of the Hamran's. The Kurds "get it" and we could have easily kept a US presence in the Kurdish north, to take pressure off the Baghdad government created by our overt presence in large bases like Liberty while bolstering economic and defensive gains for the Kurds.

We created an "independent" Kosovo out of whole cloth in violation of the UN Charter, what did we fear by siply remaining in Irbil and Dahuk with a couple of battalions of mech, SOF, AVN and MI assets?

Iraq may have been the war of choice but history will view it as the true war of necessity which we very well might have let slip through our fingers through shear lack of 3rd and 4th order effects...