Will we stay or will we go?

Will we stay or will we go?

Vice President Biden’s closed-door pep rally with congressional Democrats has come in for some well-deserved criticism for the way the participants demonized political opponents with vicious labels.

But I just read something that makes me wonder whether the real news from the pep rally got lost by the distraction of the rhetorical fireworks. According to Joshua Green at the Atlantic, Vice President Biden effectively told Rep. Barney Frank not to put much stock in the media coverage about negotiations between Iraq and the United States over a longer-term American presence in Iraq. Here is how Frank relayed the conversation to the reporter:

One other big story from [the caucus meeting] today, Biden was at the caucus, and I said I was upset about Afghanistan and Iraq. So Jack Lew says, "Well, we’re winding them down." I said, "What do you mean, you’re winding them down? I read Panetta saying that he’s begging the Iraqis to ask us to stay." At which point Biden asserted himself and said — there’s clearly been a dispute between them within the administration — "Wait a minute, I’m in charge of that negotiation, not Panetta, and we have given the Iraqis a deadline to ask us, and it is tomorrow, and they can’t possibly meet it because of all these things they would have to do. So we are definitely pulling out of Iraq at the end of the year." That was very good news for me. That’s a big deal. I said, "Yeah, but what if they ask you for an extension?" He said, "We are getting out. Tomorrow, it’s over."

By late Tuesday, the Iraqis did sort of meet the deadline, so Biden’s claim that "it’s over" may have been premature. Hence, this report today in the Post: "U.S. officials on Wednesday welcomed Iraq’s decision to negotiate with Washington on keeping some U.S. troops in the country into next year, seeing it as a move toward ending the months-long political stalemate that has complicated U.S. plans for a December withdrawal."

I find today’s story far more comforting than the earlier account of the Biden-Frank exchange. The Post is describing an administration that is still committed to negotiating a relationship with Iraq that offers hope of preserving the fragile and hard-won strategic gains of the surge. The Biden-Frank exchange describes an administration that can only look at Iraq through the lens of an OMB balance sheet — an administration that thinks "it’s over." Perhaps Biden was simply indulging in more hyperbole of the "Republicans-are-terrorists" sort that the Democrats told themselves to soothe their feelings over the bruising debt fight. Or perhaps there was a garble between the reporter, Frank, and Biden. But someone with better access to the White House than I have should press the players in this story for clarification. And perhaps President Obama could identify who in the administration can speak authoritatively on Iraq and what they can authoritatively say about it.