WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is backing off its unprecedented plans to commit the US military to defending Iraq's security for years to come without submitting the agreement to a vote in Congress, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the Senate yesterday.
The plan, called a "status of forces" agreement, "will not contain a commitment to defend Iraq, and neither will any strategic framework agreement," Gates said during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Last November, President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki issued a joint declaration announcing their intention to negotiate a long-term compact that would include the United States providing "security assurances and commitments" to Iraq to deter any foreign invasion or internal terrorism by "outlaw groups."
The proposal sparked controversy because a Bush aide told reporters the White House did not intend to designate the pact as a "treaty" that would require Senate ratification.
No US president has unilaterally given a security commitment - obligating the United States to go to war on another country's behalf if it is attacked - without congressional consent.
Gates also told the committee that military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan could cost $170 billion in the next fiscal year over and above the $515.4 billion regular Pentagon budget that President Bush has proposed. But Gates cautioned the panel that any estimate would be dicey, given the unpredictability of war.
"Well, a straight-line projection, Mr. Chairman, of our current expenditures would probably put the full-year cost in a strictly arithmetic approach at about $170 billion," Gates said in response to questions from committee chairman Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan.
So, Levin pressed, "That would be a total then of $685 billion" in Pentagon spending for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. "Does that sound right?"
"Yes, sir," Gates replied. "But as I indicated, I have no confidence in that figure."
Early in the hearing, Levin said that the administration's plans regarding an agreement with Iraq "should raise real concerns on a bipartisan basis. This is not a partisan issue. This has to do with the Constitution and the role of the Senate."
Levin and two colleagues - Senator John Warner, Republican of Virginia, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts - each said the administration must submit any agreement with security commitments to the Senate as a treaty.
At first, Gates parried the senators' questions about the administration's intentions by emphasizing that presidents have signed between 80 and 100 "status of forces agreements" with other countries that host US military bases, without submitting the agreements to Congress.
But Levin shot back that none of those agreements contains the kind of sweeping security guarantees Bush and Maliki outlined in their November declaration.
Questioned by Kennedy later in the hearing, Gates was more definitive. He said categorically that the proposed agreement with Iraq will not contain a security commitment. Gates also assured Kennedy that the Senate would get a chance to review the agreement before it is implemented.
While several media outlets have anonymously quoted officials making similar remarks in recent days, the administration had not officially changed its position and the media outlets did not identify their sources.
"We're very grateful to our witnesses - particularly, may I say, Secretary Gates, for your statement of a few minutes ago giving us the flat-out assurance that any agreement with Iraq will not include a security provision," Levin said. "That's what [an] a anonymous person from the White House apparently said yesterday. . . . You have taken the anonymity away from that and given us your direct statement. And we now have it on authority."
Still, some controversy remains in the negotiations over the Iraq agreement, which will provide a legal framework for the continued presence of US troops in Iraq after a UN Security Council mandate expires at the end of 2008.
Critics worry that Bush might agree to provisions, such as permanent US military bases, that could make it harder for his successor to withdraw from Iraq. While the next president could abandon any agreement, doing so would create diplomatic problems by creating the perception that the United States does not always live up to its international commitments, specialists say.
Bush administration officials have said they don't want permanent military bases in Iraq. But their assurances were called into question last week after Bush issued a signing statement on a defense bill that created a law banning the use of taxpayer funds to establish permanent bases in Iraq.
In the signing statement, Bush said he has the power as commander in chief to bypass that law.
Citing the signing statement, Kennedy said he doubted the administration's intentions as it seeks to close a long-term deal with Iraq with less than a year left in Bush's presidency. Kennedy proposed that instead the United States and Iraq should get a short-term extension of the UN mandate and then let the winner of the 2008 presidential election make the agreement next year.
But Gates said that it would be diplomatically difficult to extend the Security Council mandate, in part because the Iraqi government wants to get out from under it and assert its right to self-government.
The Iraqis have "got a vote in this, and they don't want permanent bases, either. And they are interested in asserting their sovereignty," Gates said. "The fact is, in every meeting that I've taken part in, it has been affirmed from the president on down that we do not want permanent bases in Iraq."
Material from the