Iraq Withdrawal Timetables

Thinking out loud a bit about the news out of Iraq, what’s interesting is how the Iraqi government, by preempting the call for American troop withdrawals, has essentially appropriated what was originally formulated as an American leverage point (conditional disengagement) and used it against us. The political calculation in Baghdad is that we now need Iraq more than Iraq needs us. But what makes it impossible to really assess the significance of the development, besides the fact that it has yet to be put into ink, is that the political calculation will ultimately depend on the domestic security calculation, and that whether it’s an American president or an Iraqi Prime Minister calling for the withdrawal. When push comes to shove, Nouri Maliki won’t be holding us to a withdrawal timetable unless he’s reasonably certain he can survive our departure. Andit’s hard to imagine an American president putting the improvements in the Iraqi security environment over the past year in jeopardy either. (That could change if the situation in Iraq deteriorates in spite of a maintained troop presence, thereby reinforcing the argument that it’s time to simply cut our losses.)

On a regional level, though, it’s seems clear that in resisting a longterm SOFA, Maliki is also signalling a divergence between Iraq’s strategic interests and our own. Specifically, that means that the vision of Iraq as a bulwark against Iranian influence, at least in the near term, can definitively be relegated to the realm of pipedreams. A merely stable Iraq, in the absence of a continued American military presence, might be able to resist Iranian meddling in its internal affairs (although even that’s not certain or obvious, given the ties between all of Iraq’s Shiite factions and Tehran). But it is definitely not in a position to push back against Tehran.

What it means in terms of American domestic politics is that John McCain can use it as proof of the tactical success of the Surge, while Barack Obama can use it as proof of the strategic failure of the war. Their actual policies, meanwhile, will have no choice but to converge.

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