How Obama botched the Iraq withdrawal negotiations

Josh Rogin at FP's The Cable blog reminds us that despite the president's claim that we are leaving Iraq "as promised," there were elements in the administration who wanted several thousand soldiers to remain in Iraq past the December 31, 2011 deadline for withdrawal.

The problem, as described by most media sources, was Prime Minister Maliki's inability to convince his government to allow American forces to remain and receive immunity from the capriciousness of Iraqi justice.

Rogin has a different story:

Sullivan was one of 40 conservative foreign policy professionals who wrote to Obama in September to warn that even a residual force of 4,000 troops would "leave the country more vulnerable to internal and external threats, thus imperiling the hard-fought gains in security and governance made in recent years at significant cost to the United States."

She said that the administration's negotiating strategy was flawed for a number of reasons: it failed to take into account Iraqi politics, failed to reach out to a broad enough group of Iraqi political leaders, and sent contradictory messages on the troop extension throughout the process.

"From the beginning, the talks unfolded in a way where they largely driven by domestic political concerns, both in Washington and Baghdad. Both sides let politics drive the process, rather than security concerns," said Sullivan.

As recently as August, Maliki's office was discussing allowing 8,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops to remain until next year, Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie said in an interview with The Cable. He told us that there was widespread support in Iraq for such an extension, but the Obama administration was demanding that immunity for U.S. troops be endorsed by the Iraqi Council of Representatives, which was never really possible.

Administration sources and Hill staffers also tell The Cable that the demand that the troop immunity go through the Council of Representatives was a decision made by the State Department lawyers and there were other options available to the administration, such as putting the remaining troops on the embassy's diplomatic rolls, which would automatically give them immunity.

"An obvious fix for troop immunity is to put them all on the diplomatic list; that's done by notification to the Iraqi foreign ministry," said one former senior Hill staffer. "If State says that this requires a treaty or a specific agreement by the Iraqi parliament as opposed to a statement by the Iraqi foreign ministry, it has its head up its ass."

Which seems to be a failing of most of the Obama administration.

"It was clear from the beginning that Maliki wasn't going to make a move without the support of the other parties behind him," Sullivan explained, adding that the Obama administration focused on Maliki and neglected other actors, such as Allawi. "There was a misunderstanding of how negotiations were unfolding in Iraq. The negotiations got started in earnest far too late."

"The actions don't match the words here," said Sullivan. "It's in the administration's interest to make this look not like they failed to reach an agreement and that they fulfilled a campaign promise. But it was very clear that Panetta and [former Defense Secretary Robert] Gates wanted an agreement."

Rogin points out the probable beneficiary of this failure; Iran. Already hip deep in Iraqi politics, exerting influence on several Shia parties who belong to Maliki's coalition, Iran seems well positioned to do just about anything they wish in Iraq.

House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon:

"Multiple experts have testified before my committee that the Iraqis still lack important capacities in their ability to maintain their internal stability and territorial integrity," McKeon said. "These shortcomings could reverse the decade of hard work and sacrifice both countries have endured to build a free Iraq."

And if it all goes south? If sectarian violence, egged on by Iran, flares up again, do we send the troops back? Or if Turkey decides to punish Iraq for Kurdish terrorism, is there anything we can do to stop it?

The answer is no to both questions. And Maliki, who has proved himself a weak and ineffective prime minister, doesn't appear to have what it takes to hold it all together.

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