Friday, September 19, 2008

Barack-Channel Negotiations (UPDATED, With Nuance)

I'm a couple of days late in commenting on this, but I wanted to give myself some time to digest the full implications, let my brain habituate to the cold medications, and refrain from any overly hasty commentary.

Nope. Still an outrage.

The upshot of columnist Amir Taheri's article is that, during his "fact-finding mission" in July, the Junior Senator from Illinois took it upon himself to make suggestions to the Iraqi Foreign Minister concerning the negotiations surrounding the Status of Forces agreement between the US and Iraq:

WHILE campaigning in public for a speedy withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Sen. Barack Obama has tried in private to persuade Iraqi leaders to delay an agreement on a draw-down of the American military presence.

According to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Obama made his demand for delay a key theme of his discussions with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad in July.

"He asked why we were not prepared to delay an agreement until after the US elections and the formation of a new administration in Washington," Zebari said in an interview.

Obama insisted that Congress should be involved in negotiations on the status of US troops - and that it was in the interests of both sides not to have an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration in its "state of weakness and political confusion."

Let's look at what this means. In December, the UN mandate which currently forms the legal basis for the Coalition maintaining its forces in Iraq will expire. The US and Iraq are currently engaged in negotiations to establish a formal agreement between our two sovereign nations whereby troops would remain in Iraq until conditions fully warrant their withdrawal. Since the US is not an empire in any traditional sense, and thus is not in the business of keeping troops in a sovereign nation without that nation's express permission (e.g., Germany, South Korea, etc.), it is vital that such an agreement be struck, or else the UN mandate extended.

What Obama did, publicly, and in front of many witnesses, was to try and inject his agenda into those negotiations, and to fundamentally change their course and goals. He suggested that the Iraqi Foreign Minister hold off on moving the negotiations along until after the US elections, instead going to the UN to extend its mandate for another year. He took it upon himself, without any official authorization whatsoever, to contradict the diplomatic efforts of a sitting Administration and bring about a state of affairs which would have proved advantageous to his campaign for the Presidency.

You see, if Obama had been successful in his little extracurricular foray into international affairs, he could claim that the Bush Administration had been unable to arrive at any substantive and detailed agreement with the Iraqi government for the continued stabilizing presence of Coalition troops in theater ("Failed Policies" and all that). Further, in the event that he should actually manage to get himself elected to the Presidency, he would then not be bound by any such formal agreement, leaving him free to enact whatever half-baked strategy of retreat he might ultimately cobble together.

Even if you grant (which I don't) that the hurly-burly of election year politics is an unsuitable climate for the negotiation of such a momentous agreement, it is most emphatically not the call of a lone senator (not to mention a candidate for the Presidency) to negotiate independently with foreign leaders, particularly on matters related to war...but this is what the Obama campaign pretty much admits to having done. It was a shockingly presumptuous (and arguably illegal) act.


According to this report from ABC News Correspondent, Jake Tapper, it may be that the situation is not as dire as the Taheri column had made it seem. The key bit of nuance here lies in the difference between the Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA), and the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA). The former, as described above, deals with matters pertaining to the presence of forces in theater, and is unarguably the province of the Executive Branch. The latter, according to Tapper, "is a document that generally describes what the relationship between the two countries should look like over time." It is more treaty-like, and can quite defensibly be said to call for Legislative involvement, since the Congress is Constitutionally mandated to review treaties with foreign powers.

Tapper reported that Obama had discussed slowing the pace of the SFA, and not the SOFA.

Tapper's report indicates that US Ambassador, Ryan Crocker was present at this meeting, along with other Bush Administration officials. It can be said with great confidence that, if Obama had committed the gross violation of separation of powers of which Taheri's original column had accused him, it would not have slid quietly under the radar till this week if it had happened within earshot of Amb. Crocker.

Taheri's rebuttal of the Obama campaign's rebuttal suggests that the Democratic candidate did not draw a clear distinction between the SOFA and the SFA, and that the two agreements are inextricably linked anyway (such that meddling in one necessarily entails interference with the other). He does make some salient points, which bear closer inspection.

However, given the apparent presence of Crocker and others at the meeting, and the element of doubt concerning the two agreements and the proper purview of the Legislative and Executive Branches in their drafting, it seems appropriate to turn down the heat on this matter, and await any further developments.

Surely there are more than enough other indications of Obama's unfitness to be C-in-C without getting overly worked up about something which may well turn out to be more teapot than tempest.

Tabled, pending...

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