I've been too busy to write much the last week - a couple of big projects with suddenly looming deadlines, and a proliferating number of smaller ones (and of course watching Dr. Horrible and taking the kids to the pool!) are taking up all my time these days. But it's hard not to at least marvel at the rather remarkable changes in the official position of the Iraqi government culminating in Maliki's reported remarks favoring Obama's withdrawal plan and Bush's agreement on a 'time horizon.'
The best response thus far comes from an unidentified senior adviser to the McCain campaign, via Marc Ambinder: "voters care about [the] military, not about Iraqi leaders." That's a bit of 'straight talk' which I'm sure will play well with the Iraqis.
It's surprising, no doubt. I know that I'm not the only one who has generally assumed that Maliki and most of the ruling elite preferred McCain's vision of endless, unconditional American military support. Prevailing explanations as to why the change seem to divide into three main groups: one thinks that he doesn't really mean it and dismisses its significance; the second sees this as an outcome of Maliki's growing strength (real or perceived), after the last few months' military operations / spectacles and the wave of oil revenues; the third sees it as an outcome of Maliki's real political weakness, forcing him to bend before a rising public storm over the terms of the proposed agreement.
I don't think the first one - that he didn't mean it - holds up, especially after the latest developments. While Maliki may well backtrack after the next round of conversations, and a 'time horizon' leaves a lot of wiggle room, his new stance is well in line with a whole lot of on the record quotes from government officials and senior members of the ruling coalition in the Iraqi and Arab press (scan my tags over the last few weeks for examples, no time to fill in the links now). It also roughly accords with what most Iraqi political parties and trends have been saying, including Sistani. In other words, I don't think that transcription errors or whatnot are the story here - the position, for whatever reason, seems like a real one, or at least as real as public rhetoric ever is. (UPDATE: here is government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh's version of the 'translation error' argument, helpfully provided by CENTCOM).
A combination of the latter two may actually be the best explanation: Maliki feels strong now, but understands that the current high won't last. It's interesting in that regard that Maliki's new position towards the US is unfolding precisely at the same time as a whole raft of major laws are coming before the end of a month-long Parliamentary extraordinary session - provincial elections law (with a push to hold them by October despite all the obstacles), constitutional revisions, the vote on the return of the IAF cabinet members, and more. That sense of urgency could be read as the behavior of a leadership which feels emboldened temporarily, but knows that its window may soon close and thus wants to lock in favorable agreements now. Of course, its willingness to go for a short-term memorandum of agreement now and negotiate a long-term one with the next administration cuts the other way... unless the terms on offer now are so bad that they feel able to walk away and take a chance.
At any rate, none of this public bargaining and posturing tells us what kind of relationship with the United States this Iraqi government, or any plausible successor government, really wants. What would a "favorable deal that they want to lock in" look like to them (as opposed to wider Iraqi political attitudes)? As pleased as I've been by the Iraqi leadership's new mantra, I remain skeptical. There's a lot of wiggle room in what's been said thus far, much of it could be for public consumption or for bargaining leverage, and it's not clear that their basic self-interest has changed. But it's certainly been something to see.. curious to hear how others are interpreting it, beyond the immediate implications for US domestic politics which have thus far dominated the discussions I've read.
UPDATE - there's surprisingly little discussion of Maliki's statement in the Arab or Iraqi press this morning - I found more links to Dabbagh's 'explanation' than to the original statement, and virtually no commentary. Maybe it's just lag time, maybe something else. Interesting, though.