Saturday, December 6, 2008

Finding Change in the SOFA

In yesterday's Washington Post, columnist and commentator Charles Krauthammer posted an editorial about the recently-approved Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which creates the legal framework for American forces' continued presence in and ultimate withdrawal from Iraq. Krauthammer is one of my favorite commentators on the nightly panel of "Special Report with Britt Hume." Sure, he looks a bit like Rumpelstiltskin, and is clearly dealing with a whopper of a dysfluency/stutter (and imagine the moxie of an individual with such a condition who chooses to make his living speaking before TV cameras!). But I find his intellect to be formidable, his analyses to be useful and insightful, and his humor to be dry as a Gobi salt flat and intermittently hilarious.

If nothing else, the SOFA will put the lie to many of the hysterical claims that OIF is an "illegal war" (never mind Saddam's continual material breaches of multiple binding UN Security Council resolutions before the invasion, and the UN mandate which had authorized the presence of forces since then...). The SOFA is a legal agreement between sovereign nations, arrived at through the peaceful actions of a democratically elected government (Iraq's), carefully laying out the terms under which the forces of another government (ours) will help to bolster the security and enable the further stabilization of the host nation's government. Indeed, it is the very familiar political machinations by which the SOFA was agreed-upon which Krauthammer rightly points out as well-nigh miraculous, all things considered:

Also largely overlooked at home was the sheer wonder of the procedure that produced Iraq's consent: classic legislative maneuvering with no more than a tussle or two -- tame by international standards (see YouTube: "Best Taiwanese Parliament Fights of All Time!") -- over the most fundamental issues of national identity and direction.

The only significant opposition bloc was the Sadrists, a mere 30 seats out of 275. The ostensibly pro-Iranian religious Shiite parties resisted Tehran's pressure and championed the agreement. As did the Kurds. The Sunnis put up the greatest fight. But their concern was that America would be withdrawing too soon, leaving them subject to overbearing and perhaps even vengeful Shiite dominance.

The Sunnis, who only a few years ago had boycotted provincial elections, bargained with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, trying to exploit his personal stake in agreements he himself had negotiated. They did not achieve their maximum objectives. But they did get formal legislative commitments for future consideration of their grievances, from amnesty to further relaxation of the de-Baathification laws.

That any of this democratic give-and-take should be happening in a peaceful parliament just two years after Iraq's descent into sectarian hell is in itself astonishing. Nor is the setting of a withdrawal date terribly troubling. The deadline is almost entirely symbolic. U.S. troops must be out by Dec. 31, 2011 -- the weekend before the Iowa caucuses, which, because God is merciful, will arrive again only in the very fullness of time. Moreover, that date is not just distant but flexible. By treaty, it can be amended. If conditions on the ground warrant, it will be.

Much could still go wrong in Iraq, to be sure. It is unlikely that Tehran will simply sit on its haunches and allow a prosperous, democratic, and US-aligned Iraq to flourish on its border without attempting to wreak continued mischief. Still, with oil under US$50 a barrel, the Iranian regime may have its hands full without pumping resources toward the destabilization of its neighbor. As Krauthammer points out, we must expect intermittent upticks in deadly attacks inside Iraq, as Provincial elections (scheduled for January 2009) approach.

Still, it is looking more and more like it would take a system perturbation of currently uncommon proportions to derail Iraq's trajectory toward something unprecedented in the Middle East: an Arab state with a multi-sectarian, multi-ethnic, democratically elected legislature (which includes women), a growing middle class, and a diversified economy, and a commitment to lawful, stable interactions with its neighbors, which it can back with credible, professionally-fielded (and civilian-controlled) military force. Krauthammer lays out the potential up-side of this for the region (to say nothing of the Iraqi people themselves):

-- a flawed yet functioning democratic polity with unprecedented free speech, free elections and freely competing parliamentary factions. For this to happen in the most important Arab country besides Egypt can, over time (over generational time, the time scale of the war on terror), alter the evolution of Arab society. It constitutes our best hope for the kind of fundamental political-cultural change in the Arab sphere that alone will bring about the defeat of Islamic extremism. After all, newly sovereign Iraq is today more engaged in the fight against Arab radicalism than any country on earth, save the United States -- with which, mirabile dictu, it has now thrown in its lot.

No one knows the dangers of unchecked extremism, and the retrograde traditionalism which feeds it, like the Iraqi people do; it's been scant months since they were nearly dragged into the fires to which it ultimately leads. The promises of a new Iraqi State are yet but a delicate crust over the chaos from which it was so recently rescued. But I'll bet you dollars to dinars that the Iraqis have had a bellyful of that mayhem, and will be loath to go back for a second helping. If Dubai is a sort of bizarre Disney Land version * of a Middle Eastern future, Iraq may one day be its New York.

* cf. my comment here, #220.

No comments: