State department Image
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Sec. of State Hillary R. Clinton
Most foreign countries that have U.S. troops stationed within their geographical borders have legislation or memorandums of understanding with that country stating that if a member of the U.S. armed forces is accused of breaking one of that country’s laws, that service member will be granted immunity by the foreign country and will be tried in a U.S. court, not in the foreign country’s court. This is called a Status of Forces Agreement and it is routinely used around the world to grant immunity to U.S. forces.
Historically these immunity agreements require some wrangling. The foreign countries with whom we are negotiating usually claim that giving U.S. troops immunity violates the country’s national sovereignty. On the other hand, U.S. negotiators take the position that sovereignty is necessary to get the U.S. Congress to authorize a continuance of troop deployments to that particular country.
Routinely the negotiations drag on for a year or so, or until we put the right sweetener on the table. Then the country we are negotiating with, while lapping up the sweetener, starts losing interest in sovereignty and immunity. It’s an old foreign policy game played by countries all over the world. Iraq is no exception.
All countries know that it is just a negotiation game both sides are playing. Neither side expects their first “NO” or “YES” to be taken as either definitive or final. So imagine how surprised Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq must have been when President Obama said that he was pulling all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of this year, supposedly because Iraq refused to sign an agreement granting U.S. troops immunity.
To complicate things even more and to make them even less palatable, Obama insisted that the immunity provisions would have to be approved by the Iraqi Parliament, not just by the Prime Minister’s office, as is often the case. Once the Iraqi Parliament got involved in the negotiations, things would become extremely complicated and difficult, if not impossible.
Certainly Maliki was stunned when Obama pulled his negotiators out of the negotiations without making a real effort to find an agreement. Both Obama and Maliki knew full well how the immunity, Status of Forces Agreement, game is supposed to be played. The first “NO” and “YES” are only negotiation openers, not a final offer.
Maliki must have suspected that something was amiss when by mid-summer of this year Obama’s State Department and Department of Defense hadn’t even begun preliminary talks with his negotiating team. These are not the actions of someone negotiating in good faith. Surely such a delay and show of indifference sent a clear signal to Maliki that Obama wasn’t serious about a continued commitment of U.S. Forces to help Iraq successfully transition to a democratic way of life and protection from a rogue Iran.
By then Maliki must have also known that this is Obama’s normal method of operation. He casually announces his policy intentions, which in this case were to withdraw U.S. Forces from Iraq before the end of December, and then leaves it to the Congress and the federal bureaucracy to worry about implementation while he plays golf or goes off on some overseas junket. With or without the Status of Forces Immunity Agreement, Obama never intended to extend the presence of U.S. Troops in Iraq beyond the end of the year.
In this case both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have publicly said that the withdrawal of U.S. Forces is precipitous and ill-advised. They also said that the numbers of troops scheduled by Obama to remain in Iraq past the end of the year aren’t enough to defend themselves, much less assist Iraq in the maintenance of law and order or in defending their country from predator nations like Iran.
Meanwhile Obama stands aloof maintaining plausible deniability. If the shortage of U.S. Troops leads to a disaster of some sort, he can claim that he wanted to leave more troops but Iraq said “NO” and refused to give our troops immunity. In the meantime Obama pretends to be innocent of the consequences of the withdrawal and is agreeable to his generals’ and admirals’ recommendations. In fact, he is deliberately dragging his feet hoping that events in Iraq will somehow overtake the ill-advised troop withdrawal. If things go well he can take credit for them. If they don’t go well, he can express concern.
So President Obama is simply using, for political purposes, Iraq’s saying “NO” to the extension of the Status of Forces Immunity Agreement as a convenient excuse to cover his withdrawal of U.S. Forces from Iraq. Prime Minister Maliki, who is left holding the bag, should learn to be careful what he asks for. He just may get it.