Base-less Strategy

With nine months left in office, the Bush administration has opened negotiations with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that are expected to set parameters within which future relationships between Iraq and the United States will be conducted. The end product, as presently envisioned by Washington, will be either one document with two major sections – security issues and all others – or possibly two documents. The main thrust of the security document reportedly will be a traditional status of forces agreement (SOFA) that defines the extent to which Iraq’s laws will apply to U.S. personnel in Iraq. The other agreement will cover non-security issues.

When assured of anonymity, Iraqi officials have been more open than the U.S. negotiators about their expectations. Iraqi descriptions of the non-SOFA discussions, said to cover economic, social, financial, trade, political, military, and environmental matters, suggest that there may well be a series of specialized subject-matter documents rather than the one or two mentioned by U.S. sources. Such an outcome presumably would please the White House which has taken the position that no documents emerging from the negotiations will rise to the level of a treaty and thus require legislative imprimatur.

Permanent Bases Debate

Understandably, the White House has been extremely reticent and defensive about the discussions, perhaps remembering past subterfuge of its own. And while there are no signs of panic – yet – negotiators are quite aware that critical details, leaked to opponents before the final signatures are affixed, potentially could scuttle months of maneuvering by the Bush administration on sensitive topics. Of these, the most politically sensitive issue is whether U.S. bases being built in Iraq should be, or clearly already are, permanent.

Ironically, the basing debate is more of a U.S. domestic controversy that pits Democrats in Congress against Republicans in Congress and the White House than an issue between the United States and Iraq. The current (110th) and previous (109th) Congresses enacted legislation banning the expenditure of funds for the construction of “permanent” bases in Iraq. Each time, Bush signed the legislation into law (PL 109-284, PL 109-364, PL 110-28, PL 110-116, PL 110-181) That he evidently never had any intention of complying (as commander in chief he believes he has virtually unlimited leeway to ignore provisions of law pertaining to the “global war on terror”), Bush included in his signing statement for PL 110-181 a specific reference to the anti-base provision as one that he would interpret for its consistency with his duties as commander in chief.

Moreover, as a harbinger of what the administration hopes will come out of its discussions with Baghdad, even as Bush was signing the latest bill banning permanent bases in Iraq, his Office of Management and Budget was compiling the president’s budget for the 2009 fiscal year – including requests in the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars destined for military construction throughout Iraq. When challenged on the intended use for this stream of funds, the response, if any, comes down to improving the security of U.S. troops. (And as it always does, Congress rolls over when it hears this phrase and votes to appropriate the funds requested.)

So when General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker testified before Congress, April 8-9, 2008, both specifically denied that permanent bases were envisioned in Iraq for U.S. soldiers. Spokespersons for the administration also reiterated that the discussions with Iraq did not include permanent bases. The question, therefore, in light of the 2009 military construction appropriations request from the White House, is the meaning of “permanent.”

Defining Permanent Bases

The administration has drawn comparisons between the structure of bases in post-World War II Germany and in South Korea after 1953 and its expectations for the longevity of bases in Iraq. Taking that as his cue, two days after Petraeus and Crocker testified before the Senate, Senator James Webb (D-VA) asked Assistant Defense Secretary Mary Beth Long to define what, in the administration’s jargon, is a “permanent” base. When Long conceded that there was no such definition in her department, let alone in the administration, Webb observed that the word described not what the bases will be but what they won’t be.

“Permanent,” it now seems, “refers more to the state of mind contemplated by the use of the term,” according to Long, rather than a physical reality. Thus administration officials can testify, as they did repeatedly during the hearing just referenced, that the United States will have no permanent bases in Iraq because their “state of mind” is that the bases are non-permanent. By extension, for every negotiation involving security commitments and the forward basing of military units (and what authorities these units might be permitted), defining the meaning of such terms as “permanent” and “commitment” becomes a recurring task. All participants in a potential agreement have to be clear as to the connotations as well as the denotations of the language used. Equally, like the dog that didn’t bark in the middle of the night in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ mystery “Silver Blaze,” negotiators need to agree on what is not meant by such words.

The Cash

How does one do this if words themselves no longer can be trusted? One way is to heed the old saw, “Follow the money,” for where government spends thereto will be the principles and beliefs that are its priorities.

What turns up is a rather more expansive list of regional bases funded by Washington than many Americans realize. As part of the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2008 fiscal year, signed into law by President Bush on January 28 (PL 110-181), Congress authorized Army and Air Force military construction funding totaling $425.7 million for three bases in Afghanistan and nearly $1.9 billion for 16 bases in Iraq. Moreover, the law does not require that all funds allocated actually be spent in FY2008. But the most intriguing part of the request is the $203 million for a catch-all “various location” line item entry, suggesting that special operations units (military and CIA) are part of the mix under consideration. (That this might actually be the case is mind-boggling in light of the just completed 104-acre $736 million U.S. embassy in Baghdad – a “super” base if there ever was one.)

Hardly had the ink dried on FY2008 legislation when the president sent Congress his proposed budget for the 2009 fiscal year. This proposes worldwide military construction spending that exceeds $21 billion, more than triple actual spending in FY2007. Even in a $550 billion budget, $21 billion is “real money.”

Treaty Ratification

But this year, the real fight – if there is to be one – will center on the question of ratification, The preferred U.S. timeline calls for completion of discussions and agreement with al-Maliki’s government by the end of July – the same time line for the complete withdrawal of the last Brigade Combat Team that went to Iraq in 2007 as part of the Bush administration’s “surge.” In his recent testimony to the Armed Services and Foreign Relations/Foreign Affairs Committees of the U.S. Congress, General Petraeus called for a 45-day “pause” in troop withdrawals to consolidate and assess the reaction to decreasing U.S. forces to 140,000. With Congress, as usual, in recess for all of August, the administration undoubtedly hopes the Iraqi parliament will approve all relevant documents sometime in July and send them to Washington for Bush to sign while Congress is in recess and unable to stop another instance of the “unitary presidency.”

Should this time line not materialize, the administration will undoubtedly try to finesse all efforts by Congress to compel the White House to submit any document that emerges for Senate ratification as treaties. Unfortunately, given the slim margins the Democrats have in each chamber in the current Congress, it is likely the congressional leaders will find most of their efforts consumed by the struggle to enact appropriations bills before adjournment, traditionally within the first week of October, so that lawmakers standing for re-election can get home to campaign.

This circumstance makes the electoral calendar the ally of the White House, not Congress. Compounding the administration’s advantage is the large number of Republican incumbents not seeking reelection: by early March, Republicans constituted three-quarters of the 40 House members who have announced they will not seek reelection. The 40 Republicans running to replace those leaving are unaffected by the congressional calendar.

Al-Maliki could play a key role in the White House calculations if the “Plan B” timeline comes into play. All he needs to do is to hold back submitting the Iraqi parliament any agreements negotiated with the United States until after parliament’s August recess and the observance of the Holy Month of Ramadan, which in 2008 begins approximately September 2. This could delay the arrival of the agreements in the Oval Office until mid-October with Congress adjourned.

In fact, the only time requirement is that both the United States and Iraq complete their negotiations and sign the relevant documents by December 31, 2008. That’s the expiration date of the current UN Security Council mandate authorizing the presence of armed foreign soldiers in Iraq to help maintain order and to assist other national and international agencies working to restore Iraq to its place in the community of nations.

Some U.S. lawmakers have suggested that a further extension of the UN mandate may be necessary if negotiations over the terms of the status of forces agreement don’t resolve all the issues by December 31, 2008. Such a delay cannot be ruled out as a number of Iraqi parliamentarians have expressed displeasure at proposed provisions that would allow U.S. soldiers to arrest and detain Iraqi’s in their own country. Iraqi lawmakers note that no other SOFA permits this – but then, the United States has no SOFA with the government of a country fighting a civil war.

All in all, it is shaping up to be an interesting autumn.

Reprinted with permission from Foreign Policy in Focus.