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.