Behind Maliki’s Move Against McCain

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As Barack Obama makes his way from the Middle East to Europe this week, both campaigns are still buzzing about the boost he got in Iraq, where prime minister Nouri al-Maliki endorsed withdrawing American troops from that country by the end of 2010. So far, the national media has focused on Maliki’s comments mainly by asking what impact they will have on the U.S. presidential race. Well, as one Republican strategist told The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder, “We’re fucked.” So here’s a more interesting political question: What is Maliki really doing? The prime minister of Iraq didn’t have to take sides in the American presidential campaign, after all.

Maliki, in short, is trying to seize the upper hand in negotiations with the U.S. that have almost completely escaped the notice of the American press but have been going on since last November. That’s when George W. Bush, riding the initial success of the surge and with less than a year to go before the 2008 election, began pressing Maliki to agree to an extensive series of long-term demands. The Bush administration reportedly wants the permanent right to keep troops and military bases in Iraq; to control Iraqi airspace, below 29,000 feet; to pursue the war on terror inside Iraq, arresting or detaining Iraqis whenever American officials deem it necessary; and to shield American military personnel and contractors from Iraqi law. And the administration threatened Maliki with the loss of some $20 billion in Iraqi foreign-exchange reserves, now sitting in New York, unless he went along. The U.S. demands are extremely unpopular with Iraqis, but Maliki, heavily dependent on American military and financial support, played ball. Until now.

Now Maliki’s Dawa party is facing provincial elections scheduled to take place on October 1. And now Obama looks like he could be the next American president. By advocating a U.S. withdrawal by 2010 — and implicitly challenging the entire framework of the agreement Bush is pushing — Maliki stands to gain at the polls and maybe to gain a better deal from the next administration, too. Maliki actually took a first crack at this on July 7, when he said any status-of-forces agreement would have to include a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. McCain replied that Maliki must have been mistranslated. Wrong. Maliki is using our presidential election as leverage to improve his own political standing.

This kind of thing has happened before. Throughout the summer of 1968, Lyndon Johnson desperately wanted to announce a bombing halt in the Vietnam War, but would not do so until the North Vietnamese agreed to allow South Vietnam into the peace negotiations that were taking place. In October of that year, North Vietnam acceded — but South Vietnam’s president, Ngyuen Van Thieu, refused to go along. Urged by surrogates of Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon (quite possibly at Nixon’s own behest) to block the peace talks, Thieu decided to bet on a Nixon presidency rather than deal with the waning days of the Johnson administration. (LBJ stopped the bombing anyway, but not in time to prevent Nixon from winning.) Thieu was an American surrogate, but he was also a politician bound to use whatever maneuvering room he had to increase his own chances for survival. So is Maliki.

Maliki’s “f Thieu” to Bush is really a problem for only two groups of people. One is the pro-war wing of the Republican Party, whose members love to promote democracy right up to the point where democratic processes produce results they don’t like. John Derbyshire on the Corner: “We should tell Maliki, loudly and in public, that he owes his job to us, and that further prosecution of our military operations in his country will be conducted with regard only to U.S. interests, as determined in consensus by our established domestic political processes. And if he doesn't like that, he can go to hell.” So much for purple fingers.

The other is the McCain campaign. Of all the problems McCain thought he would have to deal with in Iraq, surely he never expected the thorniest to be the Iraqis themselves saying, “No, thanks.” —Peter Keating