Bush’s finest moment on Iraq: SOFA, not the surge

Peter Beinart today bravely repeats the emerging would-be conventional wisdom. Rather than simply denounce everything Republican, he argues, Democrats should admit that the “surge” worked and — uniquely echoing a thousand recent op-eds —  was President Bush’s finest moment.  I have a hard time imagining anything as tedious as rehashing those tired debates from the ...

589389_090118_bushmaliki2.jpg
589389_090118_bushmaliki2.jpg
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - DECEMBER 14: U.S. President George W. Bush (L) and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki shake hands after signing official documents during a joint press conference on December 14, 2008 in Baghdad, Iraq. Bush arrived in Iraq on a unannounced, farewell visit to Baghdad on Sunday, just weeks before he leaves his office to President-elect Barack Obama. Bush will meet with Iraqi leaders, thank US troops and celebrate the new security agreement during his visit. (Photo by Thaier al-Sudani-Pool/Getty Images)

Peter Beinart today bravely repeats the emerging would-be conventional wisdom. Rather than simply denounce everything Republican, he argues, Democrats should admit that the "surge" worked and -- uniquely echoing a thousand recent op-eds --  was President Bush's finest moment.  I have a hard time imagining anything as tedious as rehashing those tired debates from the campaign about the "surge" -- perhaps we could have another round of arguments as to whether the surge brigades arriving in the spring of 2007 caused the Sunni turn against al-Qaeda in the fall of 2006?  But in the interests of post-partisanship, I am willing to offer an alternative as Bush's finest hour in Iraq:  the Status of Forces Agreement.

Signing a Status of Forces Agreement requiring the full withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq on a fixed three year timeline demonstrated a real flexibility on Bush's part. It demonstrated a pragmatism and willingness to put the national interest ahead of partisanship that few of us believed he possessed. It is largely thanks to Bush's acceptance of his own bargaining failure that Barack Obama will inherit a plausible route to successful disengagement from Iraq. 

Conservatives now like to claim the SOFA as a "Bush-negotiated" success. But Bush entered the SOFA negotiations looking for something entirely different than what emerged at the end. The U.S. went into the SOFA talks intent on obtaining legitimacy for a long-term military presence in Iraq once the Security Council mandate ended. When negotiations began, it was widely assumed that Bush would extract from the Iraqis an agreement which made the removal of U.S. troops entirely contingent upon American assessments of conditions on the ground.  There were widespread discussions of permanent U.S. bases and a Korea-style presence for generations, an assumption that the U.S. would retain a free hand in its operations, and an absolute rejection of an Obama-style timeline for withdrawal.

Peter Beinart today bravely repeats the emerging would-be conventional wisdom. Rather than simply denounce everything Republican, he argues, Democrats should admit that the “surge” worked and — uniquely echoing a thousand recent op-eds —  was President Bush’s finest moment.  I have a hard time imagining anything as tedious as rehashing those tired debates from the campaign about the “surge” — perhaps we could have another round of arguments as to whether the surge brigades arriving in the spring of 2007 caused the Sunni turn against al-Qaeda in the fall of 2006?  But in the interests of post-partisanship, I am willing to offer an alternative as Bush’s finest hour in Iraq:  the Status of Forces Agreement.

Signing a Status of Forces Agreement requiring the full withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq on a fixed three year timeline demonstrated a real flexibility on Bush’s part. It demonstrated a pragmatism and willingness to put the national interest ahead of partisanship that few of us believed he possessed. It is largely thanks to Bush’s acceptance of his own bargaining failure that Barack Obama will inherit a plausible route to successful disengagement from Iraq. 

Conservatives now like to claim the SOFA as a “Bush-negotiated” success. But Bush entered the SOFA negotiations looking for something entirely different than what emerged at the end. The U.S. went into the SOFA talks intent on obtaining legitimacy for a long-term military presence in Iraq once the Security Council mandate ended. When negotiations began, it was widely assumed that Bush would extract from the Iraqis an agreement which made the removal of U.S. troops entirely contingent upon American assessments of conditions on the ground.  There were widespread discussions of permanent U.S. bases and a Korea-style presence for generations, an assumption that the U.S. would retain a free hand in its operations, and an absolute rejection of an Obama-style timeline for withdrawal.

But Iraqi leaders, to most everyone’s surprise, took a hard line in the negotiations. Their tough line was encouraged by Iran, no doubt, as stressed by many frustrated American commentators. But it also reflected Iraqi domestic considerations, including several rounds of upcoming elections and an intensely strong popular Iraqi hostility to the U.S. occupation under any name. The Iraqis were also helped by the calender.  As negotiations dragged on, the December 31 deadline loomed large, threatening to leave the U.S. troops without any legal mandate to remain in the country and forcing the hand of American negotiators.  Finally, the Iraqi leaders clearly kept a careful eye on the American Presidential elections and used Obama’s stance to strengthen their own hand in negotiations.

And here’s where I will offer some sincere praise for Bush and his team. When the Iraqis insisted on an Obama-style timeline for U.S. withdrawal instead of a Bush/McCain- style conditions-based aspirational time frame for U.S. withdrawal, he could have insisted on the latter. This would have fit with his administration’s often-repeated preferences. He could have continued to push for this conception closer to the December 31 deadline, playing high-stakes chicken at the expense of American military planning for the coming year and at the risk of the Iraqi political system not having adequate time to ratify the deal.

But he didn’t.  To his credit, Bush agreed to the Obama-style timeline for U.S. withdrawal. Granted, he hedged — he didn’t authorize Ambassador Ryan Crocker to sign off on the deal until after the Presidential election (on November 18). But at that point he bowed to the political realities in the U.S. and Iraq and agreed to a SOFA which far more closely matched Obama’s avowed vision for Iraq — withdrawal of U.S. forces in three years, no permanent bases — than his own. Thanks to this pragmatism, Obama can now work closely with the Iraqi government in managing the drawdown instead of spending his first months in office trying to wriggle out of an unacceptable deal.  And this, I might speculate, is among the reasons why Robert Gates will continue as Secretary of Defense. 

And thus I offer Bush’s willingness to sign the SOFA mandating U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and not the surge, as his finest moment in Iraq.  

Photo by Thaier al-Sudani-Pool/Getty Images

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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