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Obama’s winks, nods and word games on Iraq

President-elect Barack Obama interviewed by Tom Brokaw on Sunday’s Meet the Press.

This sounds pretty straightforward:

“All United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”

That statement was contained in the famous Status of Forces Agreement  (SOFA) ratified by the government of Iraq last week. (See Article 24 of the SOFA, here. [PDF])

In an interview, conducted Saturday and aired on “Meet the Press” yesterday, Tom Brokaw had this exchange with President-elect Obama (you’ll find it at the end of the video excerpt above):

BROKAW:  “On Iraq, there’s a new phrase that has come into play called ‘residual force.’ How many troops will stay behind in an Obama administration?  Speculation is 35,000 to 50,000. Is that a fair number?”

OBAMA: “Well, I’m not going to speculate on the numbers.  What I’ve said is that we are going to maintain a large enough force in the region to assure that our civilian troops — or our civilian personnel and our, our embassies are protected, to make sure that we can ferret out any remaining terrorist activity in the region, in cooperation with the Iraqi government, that we are providing training and logistical support, maintaining the integrity of Iraq as necessary.  And, you know, I — one of the things that I’ll be doing is evaluating what kind of number’s required to meet those very limited goals.”

It’s true that what Obama said yesterday is consistent with what he said during the campaign. He also said he would “end the war” and remove all “combat troops.” You might also note, if you are parsing Obama very carefully, that he said (and he often used these words during the campaign as well) that the residual forces necessary to accomplish those specified missions would be maintained “in the region,” which raises the possibility that many of them will be in Kuwait or somewhere else.

But you might notice a couple of things that the president-elect didn’t say. He didn’t say: “I don’t know where you got those numbers, but it won’t be anywhere near 50,000.” And he didn’t say, “Well, you should note, Tom, that the Iraqi government just approved a document requiring all U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraqi territory by the end of 2011, and we certainly don’t expect to stay after the sovereign Iraqi government has asked us to leave.”

Eli Lake of The New Republic is among those who have been compiling the winks, nods and word games that could be used to get around the 2001 deadline. My favorite was this little reminder of Iraq’s ethno-religious heterodoxy that gives rise to all kinds of interesting possibilities (you’ll find it on page 3 of Lake’s piece):

“A Washington representative for the Kurdistan Regional Government, Qubad Talabani, whose father Jalal is president of Iraq, told me last week, ‘As Kurdish leaders have said in the past, American forces will always be welcome in the Kurdistan region, and we look forward to working with our American friends within the framework of this law to discuss America’s long-term presence in our region.’ Far from booting U.S. forces out of the country, he believes that the sofa ‘gives America the legal cover for expanding their already good relations with Iraqi security institutions.'”

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/08/2008 - 10:48 am.

    I found two things to be quite irritating during the campaign regarding foreign relations. Both candidates acted like US strikes on target inside Pakistan were a hypothetical scenario when in fact we’ve been launching such attacks for at least two years. Obama didn’t give credit to Bush for already doing what he himself had advocated, and McCain didn’t condemn Bush for reckless behavior. I guess both candidates figured that what a president says about bombing a country is more important than whether or not we’re actually bombing a country. Maybe if we don’t say anything Pakistan won’t realize it’s being bombed.

    Then of course both candidates acted like the Iraqi people and government were irrelevant regarding future US troop levels. The Iraqi’s have always said they want us out. This is what happens when you fail to acknowledge that your an occupying force. This was an occupation, not a liberation.

  2. Submitted by Pat Igo on 12/08/2008 - 01:45 pm.

    Appears that our president elect has somehow adopted the “Bush Doctrine”
    Amazing what a couple of intelligent breifings will do to a good politician

  3. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/08/2008 - 02:40 pm.

    I HOPE Mr. Obama has not bought into the war-on-terror falsity that we are entitled to hunt down and kill those we label as terrorists no matter whose sovereignty we disregard.

    Iraq has begged us for years to stop killing civilians in our zeal to “get” terrorists. The presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan have now joined in that urgent plea that we stop such attacks. So sorry, we say, but darn it, we have a job to do. President Karzai even said recently that perhaps Afghanistan would be better off fighting the Taliban itself than to let the U.S. continue killing innocent Afghanis.

    Last June, two members of Iraq’s parliament hand-carried a letter to a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that reads, in part: “The majority of Iraqi representatives strongly reject any military-security, economic, commercial, agricultural, investment or political agreement with the United States that is not linked to clear mechanisms that obligate the occupying American military forces to fully withdraw from Iraq.”

    No matter what our War on Terror authorization says we are “entitled” to do, we have no right to illegally invade or conduct military operations within any sovereign nation. We must honor their wishes in this matter, no matter what the hawks at home say.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/08/2008 - 04:39 pm.

    Eric, I for one can’t wait to read your insightful analysis of Obama’s winks, nods and word games on just how he thinks he’s going to finance his “Brave New Deal” when, for all intents and purposes, the fed is broke.

  5. Submitted by John E Iacono on 12/13/2008 - 02:18 pm.

    Do we have a “right” to attack our publicly sworn enemies who have attacked us and others, and who promise to continue that activity even if they are hiding in a foreign country?

    I believe we do, and I hope no “diplomacy” will surrender this right.

    Do we lose that right if the same enemy hides himself among other less directly involved persons? (I will not call them innocent, because they are at very least guilty of not driving the criminals out of town. “All that is needed for evil men to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”)

    Again, I believe we do, although precautions need to be taken to minimize those collateral casualties. Those who allow these persons to live safely in their midst in my opinion are just as guilty of collusion with them as were the citizens of Germany during World War II guilty of supporting Hitler’s war machine.

    I believe in this I am in agreement with both our present and our future president.

    And I frankly believe any other position is at very least naive, and at worst deliberately attempting to carve out safe havens for those who kill innocent members of our society without compunction.

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