No way to avoid the tough issues in Iraq

Wathiq Khuzaie /Getty Images U.S. officials aren’t impressed with the Iraqi government’s recent noises about setting a hard date or a timeline for the withdrawal of American forces. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that a drawdown “depends on the situation on the ground,” and State Gonzalo Gallegos stressed that any decision to withdraw would ...

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594147_080709_iraq5.jpg

Wathiq Khuzaie /Getty Images

U.S. officials aren't impressed with the Iraqi government's recent noises about setting a hard date or a timeline for the withdrawal of American forces. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that a drawdown "depends on the situation on the ground," and State Gonzalo Gallegos stressed that any decision to withdraw would be "conditions-based."

The Bush administration seems pretty confident it can convince the Iraqis to back down. After all, the position is logical: Why withdraw if Iraqi security forces aren't ready to assume control? Alternatively, U.S. officials may be privately telling the Iraqis that the requisite conditions will be met soon or by a certain date, so there's no need to set a public timetable.

Wathiq Khuzaie /Getty Images

U.S. officials aren’t impressed with the Iraqi government’s recent noises about setting a hard date or a timeline for the withdrawal of American forces. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that a drawdown “depends on the situation on the ground,” and State Gonzalo Gallegos stressed that any decision to withdraw would be “conditions-based.”

The Bush administration seems pretty confident it can convince the Iraqis to back down. After all, the position is logical: Why withdraw if Iraqi security forces aren’t ready to assume control? Alternatively, U.S. officials may be privately telling the Iraqis that the requisite conditions will be met soon or by a certain date, so there’s no need to set a public timetable.

The trouble with such a strategy would be that it doesn’t help Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki very much in fending off the political threat from the radical Moqtada al-Sadr ahead of this fall’s provincial elections. As Matt Yglesias explains, one way to work around the contested legal status of U.S. troops in the country, a major stumbling block in the current negotiations, is to tell Iraqis that the troops won’t be there much longer anyway. “That should buy the United States an added degree of public support within which to conduct some additional operations and leave the best possible situation behind,” he writes.

I doubt it will be so easy to avoid the thorny legal status issue, though, because there are still going to be tens of thousands of troops and contractors in the country for years to come. Even Barack Obama wants to leave some kind of residual force behind. Under what and whose rules will it operate?

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