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More on Maliki’s Games

My op-ed in the Washington Post, “Behind Maliki’s Games,” is causing a predictable tizzy in some corners of the leftist blogosphere. (See, for instance, this and this and this.) I would like to reply briefly to a couple of the points raised.

First, the bloggers ask, how can I possibly claim that “most Iraqis realize that the gains of the surge are fragile and could be undone by a too-rapid departure of U.S. forces”? Aren’t I aware of a March poll by the BBC, ABC, and other Western news organizations which found, as one blogger notes, “Just four percent of Iraqis said they had ‘a great deal of confidence’ in U.S. occupation forces, compared to 46 percent who said they had no confidence at all. 72 percent strongly or somewhat oppose the presence of Coalition forces in Iraq.”

I am well aware of that poll, and I have cited before another of its findings–namely that only 38% of Iraqis think that coalition forces should leave right away. Of those surveyed, fully 62% think that U.S. forces need to stay until security conditions improve. “Moreover,” the poll summary finds, “despite their antipathy, big majorities see a continued role for the United States. From two-thirds to 80 percent of Iraqis support future U.S. efforts conducting security operations against al Qaeda or foreign jihadis in Iraq; providing military training, weapons and reconstruction aid; and assisting in security vis-à-vis Iran and Turkey.”

So, yes, it’s true that Iraqis oppose the presence of coalition forces–in theory. But they don’t want them to leave until the country is more secure than it is at the moment. That is, in essence, the public sentiment to which Prime Minister Maliki is catering with his statements that U.S. combat troops (though not all troops) could leave by 2010. That is far from a hard and fast timetable of the sort that Senator Obama favors. In fact, Maliki’s spokesman has been clear that the prime minister opposes a set schedule for withdrawals because he knows that conditions may not allow it.

This brings me to the other point raised by the bloggers–their claim that by casting doubt on whether U.S. troops can really be pulled out by 2010 I am infringing on Iraqi sovereignty. Really. (See, e.g., this post.) This, in spite of the fact that I actually wrote, “Of course, if the Iraqi government tells us to leave, we will have to leave.” As that sentence should make clear, I am all in favor of respecting the sovereign decisions of the Iraqi government.

But in this case the government hasn’t made any such decision. I stress the word “government” because this whole conversation has been driven by shifting and ambiguous statements from a prime minister who is the leader of a small minority party in a large coalition government. Maliki has been gaining strength with his courageous decision to take on the Shiite militias, but the fact remains that his word is not law. This isn’t, mercifully, the Iraq of Saddam Hussein. This is a parliamentary democracy where, in order to make big decisions, the prime ministers needs to convince his fellow cabinet ministers and parliamentarians.

I see little evidence that Maliki has brought other parties on board to demand a U.S. withdrawal by 2010. In fact, from what I hear other Iraqi parties are displeased with his loose talk. There was a hint of this in an article in the New York Times yesterday which reported the disquiet of one of Iraq’s vice presidents, Tariq Hashimi, leader of the largest Sunni party: “The talk of a strict timetable appeared to worry Mr. Hashimi. Sunni Muslims fear that a rapid withdrawal would leave them vulnerable to Shiite Muslim efforts to further diminish their power. Rather, he said the emphasis should be on the Iraqi army’s readiness.”

Obama heard the same message from tribal leaders of the Awakening council in Anbar Province. According to Reuters, “Obama said that Anbar tribal leaders and the province’s governor had expressed concern about a potential ‘precipitous drawdown’ of U.S. troops.”

So I am all in favor of listening to the voice of a newly democratic Iraq. But don’t oversimplify what that voice-or rather cacophony of voices-is saying.


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