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July 09, 2008

Withdrawing from the Empty Rhetoric on Iraq
Posted by Adam Blickstein

The subtext of John McCain's response to the Iraqi government's strident assertions demanding clarity on the withdrawal of foreign forces in Iraq is this: Maliki is pandering to his political constituents who want to see American forces leave, for his own political gain, but any eventual agreement will be vague, flexible and conditional enough to allow us to stay. McCain calling Malki "a politician" seems to further confirm this line of thinking, allowing him to dismiss any clarion call of withdrawal as simply political rhetoric. This would also let McCain continue advocating his policy of perpetual American presence in Iraq unabated. One problem: with Maliki, Iraq National Security Advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, and Iraqi spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh all expressing the same expectations on the possibility of withdrawal language in any security agreement, they are boxing themselves into those expectations amongst the Iraqi people.

If they cave to Bush administration demands and agree to vaguer language, then what message does that send to the Iraqi people? That their government still lacks the political will, power and general sovereignty to follow through on their own demands to an occupying force; that Maliki's word can't be trusted; that we can't trust anything the Iraqi government states publicly; that the Iraq government is in a perpetual state of weakness and needs our crutch in order to viably continue; that our presence allows the Maliki government to continue operating without taking significant risk and responsibility for itself? Any of these impressions would severely damage Maliki's standing amongst the Iraqi people, and possibly threaten to destabilize the viability of the Iraqi government itself.

Assertive statements on withdrawal shouldn't be disregarded out of hand, by McCain or anyone else. But that's exactly what he and the Bush administration are doing. Why would the Iraqi government gamble with their own viability by making these demands in the first place unless they were actually serious about following through on them? Certainly the "pandering to their own people" argument doesn't hold water because that would be too risky domestically and risk disintegrating all the political credibility the Maliki government built over the past several months.

And yet McCain is reacting like it's merely empty rhetoric, a dangerous dismissal for any potential President to make about statements from a foreign government. Instead of seriously considering the possibility that Maliki, al-Rubaie, and al-Dabbagh's are being genuine, he reiterated that any agreement will be "dictated by situation on the ground." Last time I checked, explicit statements from the government of a sovereign nation are a large part of the "situation on the ground" and not just hollow rhetoric. But maybe for McCain, empty rhetoric is all he can conceive. It is, after all, something he should be extremely familiar with himself. 


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I'm puzzled by McCain's repeated comments about withdrawing "with honor". What is dishonorable about negotiating a timetable for withdrawal with the Iraqi government? That seems like an entirely appropriate, honorable and mutually respectful way to bring the US military engagement in Iraq to an end. It's not like we're talking here about loading everyone and everything into helicopters on the roof of the Baghdad embassy. McCain appears to be suffering form an extreme and demented form of Vietnam syndrome.

I also can't quite tell what McCain is claiming here about the import of the Iraqi government statements about withdrawal. Is he saying:

1. These guys are just blowing smoke. In the end, Maliki and the Iraqi government will negotiate and accept the security pact we want, without a commitment on a withdrawal timetable or date?

Or is it:

2. We are staying in Iraq as long as we want; and to hell with what Maliki and the Iraqi people might want or demand?

Pandering to his constituency this may be, on Maliki's part. But the "constituency" McCain is referring to is a very clear majority of the Iraqi people, and the pandering is thus responsive to the will of the people.

I would like to object a bit to your use of the term "strident" to characterize the recent Iraqi government assertions. Firm, maybe. But strident? What is strident about a government of an occupied country making it clear that it expects the occupying power to make firm commitments about a withdrawal date?

I would like to object a bit to your use of the term "strident" to characterize the recent Iraqi government assertions

I would like to object a bit to your use of the term "strident" to characterize the recent Iraqi government assertions

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