The Political Logic of Timetables

Kevin Drum’s got a smart post on the likelihood of President Bush and Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki reaching a deal on a status of forces agreement that was recently believed to be dead in the water. Here’s the key quote from the WSJ article Kevin flags:

Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national-security adviser, said the recent agreement between Washington and Baghdad on a withdrawal time horizon is pushing the talks along.

“That mutual understanding has been very beneficial,” he said. “Neither of us can deal with open-ended uncertainty.”

The Iraqis are still pushing for a 2010 date, in line with Barack Obama’s proposal, but the article suggests that a compromise date a year or two after that might salvage an agreement during the Bush administration’s term. But what’s interesting is that the logic used by al-Rubaie in support of a withdrawal timetable, which the Iraqis were already insisting on as early as June 2006, is the same logic used by American supporters of conditional disengagement, namely that the open-ended presence of American troops in Iraq was exacerbating factional divisions and undermining Iraqi political reconciliation.

What’s happened in the meantime is that al-Sadr and the Sunnis silenced their guns, we surged five brigades into Baghdad, and Nouri Maliki flexed his muscles in Basra. Whether or not al-Sadr is beaten or just biding his time is a question we can’t really answer, and the same is true of whether the Sunni insurgency will re-integrate the Iraqi political system peacefully or not.

It’s also impossible to know for sure whether the American troop presence will simply postpone a return to violence, or create the conditions for a permanent political resolution of the sectarian and factional conflicts. But it’s hard to think of a better way to test that proposition than by setting an actual timetable for withdrawal. In any case, an open-ended American military presence is politically untenable in Iraq, and it looks like the American political consensus is catching up to Baghdad’s.

One final thought on the idea of a conditions-based timetable, where the big question no one is addressing is, Who sets the conditions? Spikes in violence might be caused by extremists bent on undermining the central government. But they might also represent resistance to a factional power grab legitimized by the mantle of American recognition. Anyone who thinks that a vague security guarantee to the Iraqi government is a good idea should take a look at France’s experience in Africa, where due to outdated security agreements, French troops have been propping up regimes of varying degrees of unseemliness for decades.

Of course, to a certain degree that’s what we did with Saddam Hussein so long as he functioned to contain Iran. But we did it with his army, not ours.