There's been much debate as to whether Iraqi politicians were talking about a 'timetable' or a 'time horizon' in their various statements on the negotiations with the U.S. over a security agreement. So Prime Minister Maliki made a point of spelling it out today: no US-Iraq agreement which does not include a specific deadline for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops. Maliki also claimed that such an agreement had already been reached, although Ambassador Crocker told al-Hayat that it had not been.
A very high ranking American diplomat with long experience in Iraq recently told me that he expected the Iraqis to take this as close to the brink as they could, since they knew the importance the Bush administration placed on getting a deal - basically a game of chicken, holding out for the best deal. That's likely why, for instance, we haven't seen any moves on the part of the Iraqis to prepare the ground for a renewal of the UN mandate which expires at the end of December in case the negotiations fail... when you're playing chicken, you don't wear a seatbelt.
This is obviously a big deal. It clearly affirms the long-held position of Obama and many others in support of a strong, firm, public commitment to a timeline for withdrawal, demonstrating that such an approach is not only realistic but actually manifesting. And it surely shows how totally out of touch McCain is with Iraqi realities, and how wedded to an outdated and irresponsible position.
But here's why I'm less excited by this than some of my colleagues. As with everything in Iraqi politics, there's likely to be a substantial gap between a political agreement and its implementation. I assume that even if an agreement actually passes the Iraqi Parliament (which the speaker just said was unlikely), it will contain plenty of 'conditions-based' loopholes. And I assume that both a Maliki government (and any likely successor) and a McCain administration would have every intention of exploiting those loopholes. In other words, the upshot could well be to take McCain's 100 years off the table in American politics and enhance Maliki's still-shaky political position while legalizing precisely the long-term U.S. military presence it supposedly rules out. That's why it's important to scrutinize the details of the agreement, and to get the right leadership in place to get the implementation right.