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Obama’s winks, nods and word games on Iraq

During the campaign Barack Obama said he would “end the war” in Iraq and remove all “combat troops.” Lately, when it comes to troops in Iraq, he’s been parsing his words very carefully.

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.'”