The future of the U.S. military presence in Iraq and our approach to the broader Middle East is a central issue in this year’s presidential campaign. When Americans go to the polls this November, they will have the opportunity to ratify the president’s current course of action by voting for Senator McCain or they can signal their desire for a decisive shift by voting for the Democratic nominee, whether it be Senator Obama or Senator Clinton. It is right and proper that this presidential election serve as a referendum on the key foreign policy challenge confronting the United States.
As the Iraq war enters its sixth year and the debate continues about the best U.S. strategy in Iraq, the Bush administration has chosen to focus on unilateral security assurances that bypass Congress and tie the hands of a future administration while continuing to neglect the necessity of a diplomatic surge in the region.
It appears that our current president is seeking to preempt the freedom of action of his successor by unilaterally extending formal U.S. security assurances and commitments to the Iraqi government without Congressional debate or approval. The "Declaration of Principles," signed last November by President Bush and Prime Minister Al-Maliki, commits the United States to "providing security assurances and commitments to the Republic of Iraq to deter foreign aggression against Iraq that violates its sovereignty and integrity of its territories, waters, or airspace." The details of such security assurances and commitments are to be fleshed out in a strategic framework agreement that is to be completed by July 31 of this year.
The provision of formal U.S. security assurances and commitments to another nation carries serious obligations. Were a future armed conflict to break out between Iraq and another nation, the United States could be obligated to come to the defense of Iraq. Depending upon the exact wording of the security assurances, the United States could even be compelled to assist the central government in Baghdad in tamping down an internal rebellion or intervening in a civil war. Today, the United States is a party to collective defense treaties with some of its closest allies, including its NATO allies, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. In all of these cases, the Congress provided its formal approval through the treaty ratification process. In other instances, U.S. security commitments have been approved through congressional-executive agreements requiring a majority vote in both houses of Congress. The historical precedent is clear: the Congress must agree before America’s blood and treasure is committed to the defense of another nation.
After strong and bipartisan Congressional opposition emerged, senior administration officials have backed away from the plain language of the U.S.-Iraqi Declaration of Principles. Both Secretary Rice and Secretary Gates have affirmed in Congressional testimony that no U.S. security assurances or commitments will be included in the strategic framework agreement or a separate Status of Forces Agreement. In a letter sent to me last week, the State Department affirmed that “there will be no legally binding U.S. obligations to act in the common defense in the event of an armed attack on Iraq.” I am pleased that the administration appears to have taken into account our concerns, but the Congress must remain vigilant and exercise strong oversight on the upcoming negotiations.
Extending formal security assurances to the Iraqi government is a bad idea, for a number of reasons. First, the Iraqi government under the leadership of Prime Minister al-Maliki has yet to demonstrate that it is worthy of protection under a U.S. security umbrella. The government continues to make only slow and halting progress on national reconciliation and too many of its leaders remain gripped by sectarian impulses. Recent reports indicate that the central government has failed to properly manage growing proceeds from oil revenue for reconstruction projects and other services to benefit the Iraqi people. Second, a permanent U.S. security commitment to the Iraqi government will only perpetuate the perception, both in Iraq and the broader region, that the United States is planning a long term presence in the nation, including permanent military bases. That perception both fuels the propaganda of regional extremists and provides a blank check to an Iraqi government that must begin taking responsibility for its internal affairs. Finally, the provision of U.S. security assurances to Iraq would substitute a unilateral approach in place of a necessary comprehensive regional approach. The United States alone cannot be responsible for Iraq’s internal and external security. All of Iraq’s neighbors must have a stake.
Last fall, I introduced legislation in the Senate calling on the president to carry out a “diplomatic surge” to help broker national reconciliation efforts in Iraq and ensure that Iraq’s neighbors are properly invested in its future. The legislation called on the president to undertake a series of steps, including organizing a regional conference to develop, implement, and monitor specific measures to stabilize Iraq, appointing a senior U.S. envoy to the region to supplement Ambassador Crocker’s important work, reenergizing the role of the United Nations in Iraq, and pressing Iraq’s neighbors to establish inclusive diplomatic relations with Baghdad. This type of comprehensive regional diplomacy, not ill-advised unilateral American security assurances, will best stabilize Iraq and help ensure its security.