Yesterday we reported that the Bush administration had got the Iraqi government to agree that there should not be an "arbitrary date for withdrawal of U.S. troops". The White House appeared to be trying to reign in the Maliki government’s recent embrace of a timeline for withdrawal. Today the German Magazine Der Spiegel released a interview with Prime Minister al-Maliki where he explicitly embraces Obama’s withdrawal plan.
"U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes." When asked to compare the two U.S. presidential candidates and their plans for Iraq, al-Maliki declined to answer directly but added: "Whoever is thinking about the shorter term is closer to reality. Artificially extending the stay of U.S. troops would cause problems."
It’s not clear where this is going but …. the intersection of Iraqi politics and U.S. presidential race is getting mighty interesting. Will the Iraqi government’s embrace of withdrawal effectively disarm McCain’s ability to portray Obama’s Iraq position as naive or in favor of surrender? Picture a debate where Obama says: "What are you saying John? That we should ignore our allies in Iraq and stay against the wishes of the democratically elected government that is asking us to leave?" It sure seems to me that this dynamic could profoundly shift the debate over Iraq and withdrawal.
In fact, yesterday’s rhetoric out of the White House telegraphs just such a shift. The White House announced that the Iraqis and Americans would set a "general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals". We have no idea what that means and it seems that no one else does either. But there are clearly forces within the Iraqi governing coalition pushing for withdrawal. Whether al-Maliki is devoted to the timeline or just appeasing forces within his coalition is hard to tell. It will be interesting to see whether Obama is able to take advantage of this shift on his trip with all the publicity around it.
While this increasing focus on a timeline may build momentum for the beginning of a withdrawal that brings U.S. troops home to their families, those of us in the peace community should remain vigilant. Both the al-Maliki government and Obama team are thought to be considering a residual troop force that could leave 30,000, 50,000, or even 70,000 soldiers in Iraq. For the reasons we’ve mentioned many a time on this blog we think that residual troops is militarily the worst of both worlds: not enough troops to support security and enough troops to make the force a target for attacks. Let’s make sure we get a full and real debate about how to move forward in Iraq. To make sure the debate moves beyond campaign rhetoric and includes discussion of any "residual force", click through to join our No Soldier Left Behind Campaign.