Commentary Magazine


Status of Forces Agreement

On Sunday the Washington Post editors commented:

In fact, much of the controversy over the negotiations is based on misinformation, some of it spread by Iran’s proxies in Iraq. There are claims that the Bush administration is seeking to establish scores of permanent U.S. bases. In fact, Iraq has merely asked that the agreement list the bases from which American forces would be permitted to operate. It is claimed that the deals would perpetuate the U.S. “occupation.” In fact, they would be a major step in the opposite direction, by placing American troops under the sovereignty of the Iraqi government rather than the United Nations. If the United States were to make a formal commitment to defend Iraq from external aggression, congressional consideration and approval of the pact would be appropriate. For now, the biggest risk is that Tehran and its allies will pressure Mr. Maliki into backing away from a partnership with Washington. In that case, Iran would hasten to substitute itself as Iraq’s defender and strategic ally, with momentous implications for the rest of the Middle East. Surely this is not what the Democrats want.

It is interesting that they acknowledge that there is so much “misinformation” about a key development in Iraq, perhaps another tacit admission that the American media has done an abysmal job of late in relating the extent of political changes in Iraq. There are, of course, two options for the Iraqi government if they do not want Americans to bug out immediately (which they do not) : go to the UN for a new resolution or work out a status of forces agreement (SOFA). The Iraqis, who as the Post editors point out, will enjoy greater control and authority with a SOFA will likely in the end hash out a SOFA, but if not the UN alternative remains available. In a meeting with John McCain on Sunday the Iraqi foreign minister sounded an optimistic note on the SOFA negotiations.

As Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack pointed out last week in their Brookings Institute briefing, the negotiations reveal the emergence of a fully sovereign and national Iraqi government in which public opinion of Iraqi citizens plays a real role. Like so many other developments — the revival of the national police force, the effective functioning of brigades with mixed Sunni and Shia forces, the abatement of civilian violence and the emergence of Maliki as a national figure — the American media has essentially ignored the significant developments resulting from and accompanying the surge. We can ponder why but the result is that the American public and elected leaders have a fundamentally incomplete and therefore inaccurate picture of Iraq.

And it is nice to hear that although he won’t be going to Iraq himself anytime soon or getting briefed by our commanders there Barack Obama will get more up to speed from the Iraqi foreign ministerwho remarked after his Sunday meeting with McCain: “It’s in our interest, in fact, to brief both candidates on the reality of the situation, the way we see it from our perspective, from people who’ve been at the thick of this conflict.”

Perhaps the Post editors could ask their colleagues on the news side to start running stories to explain all of this so that our current debate reflects reality. But it’s so much easier to say “nothing’s changed.” Easier, but wildly inaccurate.