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July 19, 2008



I interpret Maliki's remarks as an opportunity. The fear had been that withdrawal would mean abandoning everything we'd tried to build in Iraq to the mercy of the terrorists, and the head of the government we've been trying to build says he's sure it can stand without the American army there. So, cover to begin the process of liquidating the American commitment in Iraq has been established.

Of course, this view would have more force if someone other than George Bush were President now. Bush has been placed in a very awkward position, having so often emphasized resolution and steadfastness in a never-ending struggle at home and now being told that his chief Iraqi interlocutor thinks the end is in sight after all. It steps on his message, and of course on Sen. McCain's.

Does Maliki mean what he said? Sure he does. If things head south in a month or so and he denies ever having called for a withdrawal date, he will mean that too. It's only in American politics that flip-flopping is a capital crime; Maliki will want the American army there in force as long as he thinks his government will need it. There is an excellent chance this will be quite a while, regardless of what he is saying now. At some point, we will have to decide if this is the last word on the subject, and whether the Iraqi rather than the American government has the final say on how long this expensive adventure must continue.


However "flip-floppy" Maliki's statement might seem, is that really much of a surprise? Maliki is, after all, the nominal head of a government composed of numerous groups within Iraqi society who don't want US troops around--various Shia organizations. He is also aware that, due to numerous technical, logistic, and organizational problems, US pullout will take years--probably through most of the first term of whoever is succeeding Bush, so he'll have enough time to try to cement a more durable Iraqi ruling coalition (which, btw, could never happen because nobody would really hold hands with Maliki as long as US troops were staying in force indefinitely, make nice with his more longstanding friends in Tehran, and/or stockpile getaway cash elsewhere, if the former doesn't work.

What Maliki will probably do once the US troops are committed to leaving, align Iraq more closely to Iran, will not sit well with many in Washington (or indeed in Tel Aviv or Riyadh), no doubt. Still, it's probably the best outcome we could have gotten since we began the folly in Mesopotamia anyways, given the other guys' goals, interests, and histories (I repeat the point made earlier about Sun Tzu's dictum about knowing about other players in the game being forgotten by modern day US policymakers.). An opportunity it is...although not the ideal one. But then, we can't always dictate our goals.


The comment above by kao_hsien_chih is right on target. Even under Obama's 16-month timetable (for combat troops only), the U.S. isn't leaving Iraq overnight. So the remaining question is, on whose terms do we stay? Looked at in that light, it's no surprise that (as I wrote nearly two months ago) Maliki & Co. would "prefer to deal with Barack Obama rather than another Republican president reading from the neocon playbook." Obama may pressure the Iraqi government to do the same things the Bushites have sought in terms of political reconciliation, but probably with more genuine respect for Iraqi sovereignty. Why wouldn't Maliki, Hakim et al. prefer that?

Gregory Gause

Maybe it is as simple as a position taken in anticipation of the provincial elections (if they ever happen). Let's watch how he does in the elections (if they happen) and what he says after them.

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