PRESIDENT BUSH has been treating Iraq less as an ally than a vassal. He has been pushing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to accept two long-term agreements that would, as many Iraqis rightly object, compromise Iraq's sovereignty and independence.
Bush and Maliki agreed in November on principles for a "status of forces agreement," which will be needed as a legal basis for American troops to remain in Iraq after the United Nations' mandate for them expires Dec. 31. The agreement would set rules for US forces in Iraq. Since March, Iraqis and Americans have also been negotiating a "strategic framework agreement" to define more broadly the long-term political and diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The two agreements have been reopened for negotiation. Though Bush speaks of Iraq as a free, democratic ally, the original versions gave the United States privileges in Iraq more suitable to the relationship between a colonial power and its protectorate.
The contents of the agreements were not cast in the form of a treaty because a treaty would have to be ratified by the US Senate. Bush plainly does not want senators asking troublesome questions about the implications of an open-ended Iraqi approval for 58 American military bases on Iraqi soil.
Five of the 58 are sprawling megabases that replicate the amenities of an American town. Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad, has air traffic comparable to Chicago's O'Hare Airport. No wonder some Iraqis see these bases as proof that Bush invaded Iraq to gain control of its vast oil reserves and to establish a new permanent military presence in the heart of the Middle East.
Should Bush obtain a legal basis for the occupation from the Iraqi government rather than the United Nations, he would surely cite it as an after-the-fact justification for his war policy and its toll in lives and treasure. He could use this treaty-equivalent as proof that he had indeed reshaped a strategically vital area of the world, endowing Iraqis with freedom, democracy, and stability.
Because of fierce Iraqi resistance to the original terms of the two agreements, American and Iraqi negotiators have been revising them to narrow the prerogatives of the occupier. But even if the two sides reach a compromise, Iraqis will not soon forget the concessions that the administration tried to extract from Maliki's dependent government. They reeked of arrogance, and they fueled the most paranoid claims heard from anti-American forces in Iraq and throughout the Muslim world.
Beyond the demand for long-term military bases, the administration had insisted on legal immunity for all its troops and contractors alike. The initial versions granted US forces authority to arrest anyone it wanted in Iraq, without having to turn the detainees over to Iraqi courts. Perhaps most insulting of all for Iraqis, Bush had originally insisted on control of Iraqi airspace below 29,000 feet and license for American forces to launch military operations from Iraq against any target - without even having to consult Iraqi authorities.
Fortunately, Bush has instructed his negotiators to back down on some of the most egregious infringements on Iraqi independence. Private contractors will not have immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts. Detainees captured by US forces will be transferred to Iraqi authorities after combat ends. US troops will not conduct operations without approval from the Iraqi government. And the administration will pledge that American troops will not attack another country from their Iraqi bases.
This latter revision was the key assurance that Maliki carried to Tehran recently. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, nevertheless declared, in public, that the American occupation of Iraq was the main cause of Iraq's difficulties.
Like it or not, Iran's cooperation is vital to stability in Iraq. Yet Bush's policy has effectively prevented Tehran and Washington from acting on their overlapping interests in averting chaos in Iraq. As long as the Iranian regime fears that Iraq may become a launching pad for an American attack on Iran, Iran will try to force a rapid, complete US withdrawal. But Iran also has cause to worry that once US forces have departed, Iraq - or segments of the population - will be drawn back into the Arab fold.
What is needed in America's relations with Iraq and Iran is foresight - and the diplomatic acumen to transform a volatile three-cornered relationship into a foundation for regional security. This means allaying fears of American neocolonial ambitions in both Baghdad and Tehran. That will be the job of the next president. Bush should not be doing anything that makes a difficult mission harder than it already is.