Status-of-Forces Back From the Dead

STATUS-OF-FORCES BACK FROM THE DEAD….The Wall Street Journal reports that a status-of-forces agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, presumed dead a few weeks ago, is back on the front burner:

The Bush administration’s embrace of a flexible timeline for pulling U.S. troops from Iraq has accelerated negotiations between Washington and Baghdad over a long-term security pact, officials from both sides said.

….An actual date for a planned pullout hasn’t been hashed out. Iraqis are pushing for a 2010 withdrawal, but a compromise could be a year or two after that, according to people familiar with the talks. The agreement would allow for flexibility in case violence spikes again in Iraq, these people said.

This makes a lot of political sense to me. Nouri al-Maliki’s pronouncement last month that talks were at a dead end was always best interpreted more as a negotiating tactic than a final rejection. After all, it’s in Maliki’s security interest to ensure a continuing American presence but in his electoral interest to make clear that it’s not a permanent presence, and a formal agreement is pretty clearly the best way for him to serve both these imperatives at once.

Likewise, the Bush administration has every incentive in the world to conclude some kind of agreement with Iraq, even if it implies (artfully, of course) a withdrawal timeline. George Bush knows perfectly well that the odds favor Barack Obama winning the presidency in November, and if inauguration day rolls around with no agreement in hand, Obama is likely to make good on his 16-month timetable. But if Bush manages to conclude an agreement with Maliki that, say, agrees on troop withdrawals starting in late 2009 and concluding in 2011, how likely is Obama to try to renegotiate it?

Not very, I’d say. Political capital that would be worth spending to start a withdrawal where none existed wouldn’t be worth spending merely to speed up an already agreed withdrawal by a few months, which in turn means that a signed agreement is Bush’s best chance to ensure that troops stay in Iraq at least a year or two longer than they otherwise would. So here we have a case where both parties are genuinely well served by coming to terms before November — and that means they probably will. If I had to guess, I’d say we’ll see something by September.