WITH FRIDAY'S announcement by the White House that the United States and Iraq have agreed to set a "general time horizon" for a US troop withdrawal, it is increasingly obvious that Iraqi political leaders are calling the shots when it comes to a future role for the United States, and that President Bush has not learned anything about Iraq in the last five years.
Since November 2007, when Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed on a declaration of principles that would provide for the rules of engagement for US forces beginning on Jan. 1, 2009, when the United Nations mandate legitimizing the US occupation expires, Maliki has continued to try to force the Bush administration to accept their policies.
The Bush administration envisions a prolonged US military presence in Iraq with hundreds of large bases, and with American forces free to conduct military operations against what they perceive as Iraq's internal and external enemies. The administration says this would achieve victory over the terrorists, who in its view were preventing Iraq from becoming a peaceful, stable democracy allied to the United States that could help contain Iran. Despite Friday's announcement, the president still insists he is against an artificial timetable for withdrawal.
The Iraqis see it differently. Maliki argues that the terrorists have been defeated and the United States needs to set a withdrawal date if it wishes to remain when the UN mandate expires. Why the difference between Maliki and Bush? There are at least four reasons.
First, Maliki knows that if the United States does not set a withdrawal date, the status of forces agreement, or even a memorandum of understanding, will not be approved by the Iraqi Parliament. A majority of the Iraqi Parliament has signed a letter to that effect. Iraq's elected legislators know that the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people want the American forces out and believe that these foreign forces are actually causing much of the violence. The American people agree that the United States should have never invaded and want US forces to leave as quickly as possible. But, since Bush will not submit the agreement to Congress, he can ignore the wishes of the American people.
Second, there were not that many foreign terrorists to begin with. Despite the administration's claim that we are fighting them (Al Qaeda) over there (in Iraq) so we do not have to fight them over here (the United States), the number of Al Qaeda loyalists who came into the country after the US invasion never numbered more than 2,000. Moreover, Al Qaeda in Iraq is an overwhelmingly Iraqi organization with domestic aims. When members began killing Iraqis and tried to force a rigid version of Islam on their Iraqi collaborators, the Iraqis turned on them. Once the United States sets a date for a complete withdrawal, Al Qaeda in Iraq will lose what little support it has from the Iraqi people.
Third, with the rising price of oil, Iraq is awash in money and no longer needs US assistance to rebuild its war-torn infrastructure. When the United States invaded, oil was $25 a barrel. Now it is about $130. The Iraqi government now produces 2.5 million barrels a day, and with the contracts it has recently signed with Western companies, it soon will begin producing even more. This means that the Iraqis will be bringing in $100 billion to $200 billion a year.
Fourth, the Shi'ite dominated Iraqi government is not as concerned about the threat from Iran as the Bush administration. Many of Iraq's Shi'ite leaders lived in Iran during the regime of Saddam Hussein and see the Iranians as Shi'ite allies with whom they can and should have a close relationship - unlike Bush who sees the Iranians as the second coming of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.
As recently as June, when the president said "you know, of course, we're there at their invitation," Bush never envisioned them actually telling us to leave before his mission was accomplished. Just as he misjudged and mismanaged the situation going in, it is clear that he is equally clueless about when to get out and regain control of US policy.
Lawrence J. Korb, assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information.