The Bush administration is engaged today in perhaps its last significant policy decision on Iraq before a new U.S. president and Congress are elected to office next month—negotiating a status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government that will determine how U.S. military forces operate in Iraq beginning in 2009. This is not a decision that should be left to a lame duck administration. The American people should be engaged in the debate every bit as much as the Iraqi people are today across their own country.
Iraq’s leaders are considering the current draft of a proposed U.S.-Iraq status of forces agreement, or SOFA, that would replace the current UN mandate set to expire at the end of the year. Even after nearly a year of negotiations, Iraq’s leadership remains sharply divided over the draft SOFA accord, with key factions criticizing the deal, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a leading Shia faction in the government.
Iraq has adopted a three-stage approval process for the SOFA. First, Iraq’s Political Council for National Security would review the proposed agreement before sending it to the full cabinet for debate and approval. Second, the Iraqi cabinet must approve the agreement by two-thirds majority. Finally, the full Iraqi parliament must approve the deal.
In contrast, the Bush administration insists the SOFA with Iraq is an executive agreement that does not require congressional approval. The administration takes this stand in the face of bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Senate calling for approval of any agreement with Iraq. This legislation makes sense not least because of the paucity of information about the proposed agreement that has dribbled out of the negotiations. The leaks indicate that the Iraq SOFA is more than a simple agreement governing the status of U.S. troops in Iraq.
It seems the SOFA’s provisions on the combat role of U.S. troops essentially commit the United States to a new military mission in Iraq beyond the original mission of enforcing "all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq." That’s a big problem.
Furthermore, as the Center for American Progress’s recent report on "Iraq’s Political Transition After the Surge" demonstrates, Iraq’s leaders remain sharply divided on key power-sharing questions. The 2007-2008 surge of U.S. forces did not achieve a key goal—advancing Iraq’s political reconciliation. This proposed status of forces agreement is bound to further complicate and divide Iraqis. While it is heartening to see Iraq’s leaders have a fairly open debate on the proposed agreement, it is more than a little troubling that there has been very little debate in the American public.
The Bush administration’s consultation with Congress has been limited. A series of excellent hearings held this year by the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, highlighted some of the concerns with the proposed SOFA. But overall the American public has not been engaged on the question of the proposed agreement by its leaders.
The lack of attention is perhaps understandable given the current financial crisis and hazardous economic conditions now dominating the news. But Americans cannot afford to allow a lame duck administration to push through an 11th-hour agreement with Iraq that might not advance America’s national security interests.
Here are four reasons why the American people need to debate the proposed U.S.-Iraq security agreement.
1. Significant continued military and financial costs for America
The Bush administration has provided little to no information as to the financial and military costs of keeping an unknown number of troops in Iraq for another three years. While leaks of the draft SOFA say that U.S. troops will pull out of Iraqi cities at the end of next July, they make no mention as to what the remaining U.S. troops will be doing there, or how much it will cost to keep them in Iraq.
With U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan concerned about the rising violence there and worried that they cannot get reinforcements until some sort of redeployment of troops from Iraq occurs, the commitments outlined in the draft U.S.-Iraq agreement might further constrain resources available to complete the mission in Afghanistan. And at a time of growing economic troubles at home, American taxpayers need to know whether this proposed agreement with Iraq will mean a continuation of more than $10 billion a month for a few more years.
2. Uncertain legal protections for U.S. troops
Leaked drafts seem to indicate that Iraqi and American negotiators have tackled the difficult issue of U.S. troop immunity by reaching a consensus position—that Iraqi judicial authorities would have only a limited ability to try U.S. troops for major crimes committed off-duty, which is fairly rare in Iraq. But Americans need to know more details on how this arrangement would work in practice if tens of thousand of U.S. troops remain in Iraq for several more years.
Moreover, the Bush administration should explain what its backup plan is if the Iraqi leadership, which could barely summon the consensus to pass a provincial elections law to hold elections that most Iraqi factions favored, fails to agree on the current draft..
3. New U.S. military commitments that could impede Iraq’s political transition
One danger associated with the proposed status of forces agreement is that it would continue to foster a culture of dependency among Iraq’s leaders and provide a security umbrella for a divided leadership that has failed to make substantial gains in its political transition. Iraq’s divided leaders are maneuvering to position themselves as nationalists ahead of the country’s 2009 provincial and national elections, with even Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party balking at the proposed deal. Iraqi public opinion remains overwhelmingly opposed to the continued presence of foreign forces in Iraq. Over 70 percent of the Iraqi public disapproved of coalition forces’ presence in Iraq in a poll conducted earlier this year.
However imperfect Iraq’s representative system of government may be, it still gives Iraq’s divided political leaders incentives to respond to public opinion. Given the Maliki government’s dependence on the United States for its security, many analysts describe his coalition’s recent queasiness about the proposed SOFA deal as "positioning" and "smoke-and-mirrors" to appease nationalist sentiment. While these descriptions may be true, they underscore the reality that no politician in Iraq can be elected if they overtly favor a long-term security arrangement with the United States.
4. Impedes other countries from pulling their weight in Iraq
By offering strong bilateral commitments to Iraq in a proposed SOFA deal, the United States might actually create disincentives for other global powers and countries in the region to work constructively toward greater stability in Iraq. Instead, the United States should seek to internationalize its commitments to Iraq by working through international structures such as the United Nations, rather than strike a peculiar bilateral agreement.
Already the exclusively bilateral nature of the SOFA has created problems. Britain, America’s strongest ally in Iraq, has been forced to negotiate its own separate security agreement with the Maliki government. Such one-off legal agreements make it harder for other countries to commit to helping Iraq if Iraq’s government so desires. Rather than get bogged down in the particulars of a narrow security deal, the United States should move forward on creating a sustainable structure for constructive international contributions to Iraq’s economic, security, and political stability. The much-ignored and underused International Compact with Iraq is one mechanism that a new administration should look to utilize to build support.
In the end, the United States deserves a much better debate than it has had on the proposed agreement. This past August, a bipartisan group of Senators including Joseph Biden (D-DE), Bob Casey (D-PA), Jim Webb (D-VA), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and George Voinovich (R-OH) introduced legislation that prohibits the Bush administration from entering into an agreement with Iraq without approval from Congress. While attention is fixated on the financial crisis and deteriorating economic conditions, Americans cannot afford to let the Bush administration make another move on Iraq without much public debate and discussion in Congress. The stakes are too high to let this 11th-hour proposed agreement move forward without more scrutiny.
Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Peter Juul is a Research Associate at the Center. To read more about the Center’s policy proposals on this subject, please go to the War in Iraq page of our website.
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Former Senior Fellow
Former Senior Policy Analyst