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Monday, November 17, 2008

Maliki's Jujitsu

If we did a ranking of the shrewdest politicians in the world, I believe that Nouri Al Maliki would now be very near the top of that list. In the summertime, he faced a U.S. election in which one side couldn't be more hawkish on winning the war in his country and the other side couldn't be more dovish. Then, he stunned the world political world last summer when he backed the proposal of the dovish candidate.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki supports U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama's plan to withdraw US troops from Iraq within 16 months. When asked in an interview with SPIEGEL when he thinks U.S. troops should leave Iraq, Maliki responded "as soon as possible, as far as we are concerned." He then continued: "U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama is right when he talks about 16 months."

By doing so, he neutralized the attacks of the hawkish candidate, John McCain, that the dovish candidate, Barack Obama, had a policy that was naive. After all, his policy was now in line with the policy of the Prime Minister of Iraq's. By muddying the foreign policy waters as he did, he no doubt helped remove some doubts as to then Senator Obama's fitness as Commander in Chief.

In fact, here is what Prime Minister Maliki said in the aftermath of the U.S. elections.

A senior Western diplomat in Baghdad said that Mr Maliki told close aides he would hold the new president to an obligation to oversee a rapid withdrawal of US troops, a key Iraqi government demand in recent talks.

"Maliki has said he took the Iraq issue 'off the table' for Obama by endorsing his timetable during his visit to Baghdad in July," the diplomat told The Daily Telegraph.

"Maliki firmly hoped for an Obama victory and has used expectations of such to drive a very hard bargain with the US over its presence in Iraq.

"The prime minister has extracted an unbelievable number of concessions from the Bush administration and thinks Obama will be even more generous in implementing the deal."

Maliki faces a far more complicated political structure back home in Iraq than anything any U.S. President faces here. He has dozens of competing factions each with their own agenda. Furthermore, the occupation by the Americans has become a sore spot internally. The success of the surge has ironically made people favor the rapid withdrawal of troops. Maliki can't afford to look as though he is merely a lackey of the U.S. or he will face stiff opposition from anyone that is willing to run on the platform that they will force a rapid withdrawal of the U.S. forces.

Then, just in the last couple days, we found this stunning news.

Iraq’s Cabinet on Sunday approved a security pact that sets a timetable for the nearly complete withdrawal of U.S. forces within three years.

The deal still needs parliamentary approval, and lawmakers could vote as soon as next Monday.The largest Sunni party in Iraq, the Iraqi Islamic Party, wants the agreement to go to a nationwide referendum. Its affiliated parties complain that their efforts to amend the plan to require the release of detainees and to provide compensation for war victims were ignored by lawmakers who shaped the pact.

Followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, meanwhile, view the agreement as an affirmation of the American occupation and oppose it outright.

This pact still needs to pass the parliament, and it has plenty of detractors, Muqtada Al Sadr being the most prominent. That said, Nouri Al Maliki has performed a brilliant bit of political jujitsu. He saw this summer that Barack Obama was the clear front runner. Rather than confronting him on the timeline, he actually backed him. This did two things. First, it gave him immense leverage with the new President. Second, it calmed fears that he was merely a lackey of the U.S. Now, he has quietly negotiated a pact that will keep the U.S. forces in his country until 2011. Now, despite agreeing outwardly with Obama, he has negotiated a pact that keeps his troops in country a lot longer than anything that Obama imagined in the campaign. If President Obama withdraws U.S. troops on his timeline it would be done on his own and outside the guidelines of the pact just negotiated.

By doing all of this, it appears he is trying, and largely succeeding, in threading an awfully sharp needle. He ingratiated himself with a President that had no use for U.S. troops in Iraq. He appeased all those forces that saw him as nothing more than a lackey of the U.S. Finally, he kept the security structure done in such a manner that will maintain the security gains that have been accomplished in the last year and a half. Despite the bluster, any rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops would jeopardize all these gains. Since the new security agreement calls for U.S. troops to stay in country until 2011, President Obama would be taking a massive political risk in trying to withdraw them more quickly. If things deteriorated, he would take all the blame, fair or not. This security agreement gives President Obama all the cover he needs to keep troops for three years. Three years should be enough for Iraqi security forces to be ready on their own. PM Maliki has learned the art of political jujitsu masterfully

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