Amir Taheri is getting some attention today with a remarkable piece in the New York Post alleging that Barack Obama "tried in private to persuade Iraqi leaders to delay an agreement on a draw-down of the American military presence. According to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Obama made his demand for delay a key theme of his discussions with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad in July." Ordinarily I'd ignore such silliness, but with the McCain campaign recklessly jumping all over it, and the usual suspects hopping on board, it's worth pointing out that how shoddy a piece of work it really is.
Taheri makes two major claims in the op-ed: first, that Obama tried to persuade Iraqis to delay signing an agreement; second, that this would result in delaying the troop withdrawal Obama advocates.
Taheri's only source for the first claim is a published interview with Zebari in al-Sharq al-Awsat (to which he also contributes columns), which doesn't quite say what he claims it says. Looking at the key quote in context makes this clear. For most of the first half of the interview Zebari described all of the problems with the negotiations and the uncertainties about whether it would be binding on the next administration. The interviewer then asked him why Iraqi leaders didn't just wait until the next administration - at which point Zebari responded "that is the question which Barack Obama asked me when I was in Washington a while ago." That's hardly the stuff of concerted pressure or independent diplomacy. At any rate, the Obama campaign denies the claim forcefully - and they do presumably have transcripts of the conversation on their side.
Plus, Taheri doesn't even get the time or location of the supposed exchange right. In the very same sentence which Taheri quoted, Zebari said: "That is the question which Barack Obama asked me when I was in Washington a while ago, when I met with McCain and Obama." That's right - Taheri's only piece of evidence that "Obama made his demand for delay a key theme of his discussions with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad in July" is Zebari's account of an exchange which did not take place during Obama's trip to Baghdad in July, but rather during Zebari's trip to Washington in June. If Taheri can't even get such an obvious and consequential detail right, why should we trust anything else he says?
Taheri's real focus is on the second claim, that this exposes Obama's hypocrisy because the result of a delay in the agreement would be a delay in an American troop withdrawal. But this is, frankly, absurd. The U.S. is not negotiating an "agreement on a draw-down" with Iraq, it is negotiating two related long-term security agreements. The U.S. does not need to wait until it has negotiated and ratified a long-term security agreement to begin withdrawing troops. If President Bush wants to withdraw troops, he orders them to leave. The same is true for any future President. Whether U.S. forces are authorized to be in Iraq by a continuation of the UN mandate or a bilateral deal makes absolutely zero material difference to the next commander-in-chief's ability to redeploy forces at a pace of his own choosing (unless there is an agreement to leave earlier, which isn't at issue at this point).
Taheri is exceedingly disingenuous about what was being negotiated in June 2008 (when the conversation took place). Back then, the Bush administration was still trying to negotiate the McCain position of legalizing the U.S. force presence for the long term and vehemently rejected any talk of time tables, time lines, or time horizons. It was only in July that Maliki pulled the rug out from under McCain and Bush by insisting on a timetable for U.S. withdrawal in line with Obama's stated position. To describe the agreement being discussed in June as a "draw-down" agreement is misleading to the point of dishonesty. That might also explain why Taheri dissembles about when exactly the purported conversation took place.
Third, Taheri implies that Obama's position that the agreement be approved by Congress is part of a secret, nefarious scheme for delay. Um, no. Obama has consistently argued that any U.S.-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement should be approved by Congress because that would give it legal standing and would also be the best way to put the agreement on a firm, bipartisan footing to make it politically sustainable over the long run. Since the Iraqi parliament will approve whatever agreement is reached, it seems reasonable that Congress should have the same prerogative. In the absence of this approval, Obama has favored a temporary extension of the current UN mandate governing the presence of U.S. forces so an agreement can be reached that has the support of both the American and Iraqi people. This position is not a secret. It is right there on Obama’s website.
Finally, there's the part where Taheri suggests that if Obama were
elected it would take him months to get a negotiating team in place [i.e. March or April of 2009],
and "by then, Iraq will be in the throes of its own campaign season. Judging
by the past two elections, forming a new coalition government may then
take three months. So the Iraqi negotiating team might not be in place
until next June." Huh? Provincial elections will hopefully
be held by December 2008 but may be pushed back into the early spring of 2009, but national elections are not due until the fall of 2009 at the earliest. Does Taheri not know that provincial
elections are not the same as Parliamentary elections, or is he just
assuming that readers won't know? Whatever.
Really a fine piece of work from the esteemed columnist. I'm sure he'll go far.
UPDATE (Friday): Taheri doubles down on his claims today, but doesn't address any of the main criticisms. I criticized two significant claims in Taheri's original column: that Obama make delaying a US-Iraqi agreement until the next administration a major priority in Baghdad, and that this means that he was trying to delay a U.S. withdrawal while claiming the opposite. His new column completely fails to respond to the criticisms.
On claim #1, that Obama made delaying an agreement a priority in private conversations in Baghdad, he backs up his contention with reference to private conversations with unnamed Iraqi officials and to unspecified reports in the Iraqi media. His only on-the-record source is Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari's al-Sharq al-Awsat interview. That interview very clearly refers to the June DC meeting and not to the July Baghdad meetings. To conceal the fact that his only published source does not support his claim, Taheri actually quotes the entire sentence in question while omitting the crucial clause "when I was in Washington a while ago."
On claim #2, he continues to maintain that this alleged attempt to delay the agreement until the next administration means Obama "preferred to have no agreement on US troop withdrawals". This doesn't stand up to scrutiny, as detailed above, and Taheri doesn't even try to defend it. There is simply no relationship whatsoever between the US and Iraq reaching agreement on the SOFA/SFA and the U.S. being able to withdraw troops. There is an important issue of the U.S. presence becoming illegal on December 31 if no agreement is reached and the UN fails to extend its mandate - but that, again, would in no conceivable scenario force U.S. troops to stay in Iraq longer.
Again, the only reason I waste any time on this is that a number of right wing blogs and magazines are trying to gin this up into another faux scandal, even invoking the Logan Act. But there's just nothing there.
FINAL UPDATE: Jake Tapper demolishes what's left of Taheri's story with eyewitness accounts from the meetings:
Attendees of the meeting back Obama's account, including not just Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI, but Hagel, Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffers from both parties. Officials of the Bush administration who were briefed on the meeting by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad also support Obama's account and dispute the Post story and McCain attack. The Post story is "absolutely not true," Hagel spokesman Mike Buttry told ABC News.