Bush Shakes Up '08 Iraq Debate

Camp Arifjan in the desert kingdom of Kuwait, America's depot to the Iraq war, feels about as far away as you can get from South Carolina, Super Tuesday and the election-year squabbles back home. And George W. Bush, who is currently midway through his six-nation tour of the Mideast, is doing a good job of distancing himself from the politics of 2008. But as Bush rallied U.S. troops at the base here on Saturday with a "Hoo-ah" and conferred with his Iraq dream team, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, he indicated that he was setting in motion policies that could dramatically affect the presidential race--and any decisions the next president makes in 2009.

In remarks to the traveling press, delivered from the Third Army operation command center here, Bush said that negotiations were about to begin on a long-term strategic partnership with the Iraqi government modeled on the accords the United States has with Kuwait and many other countries. Crocker, who flew in from Baghdad with Petraeus to meet with the president, elaborated: "We're putting our team together now, making preparations in Washington," he told reporters. "The Iraqis are doing the same. And in the few weeks ahead, we would expect to get together to start this negotiating process." The target date for concluding the agreement is July, says Gen. Doug Lute, Bush's Iraq coordinator in the White House--in other words, just in time for the Democratic and Republican national conventions.

Most significant of all, the new partnership deal with Iraq, including a status of forces agreement that would then replace the existing Security Council mandate authorizing the presence of the U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq, will become a sworn obligation for the next president. It will become just another piece of the complex global security framework involving a hundred or so countries with which Washington now has bilateral defense or security cooperation agreements. Last month, Sen. Hillary Clinton urged Bush not to commit to any such agreement without congressional approval. The president said nothing about that on Saturday, but Lute said last fall that the Iraqi agreement would not likely rise to the level of a formal treaty requiring Senate ratification. Even so, it would be difficult if not impossible for future presidents to unilaterally breach such a pact.

As far as the number of U.S. troops that would remain in Iraq under such a pact, the administration is considering changes that could also pre-empt anything the Democrats have in mind. Gen. Petraeus told reporters that he and Pentagon planners were also working on a new "intellectual construct" for a U.S. troop presence in Iraq beyond the planned withdrawal of five brigade combat teams, two Marine battalions and the Marine Expeditionary Unit by the end of July. "We're going to continue to play with this, if you will," Petraeus said. "We literally meet a couple of times a week and keep working this along." Asked whether he and the Pentagon were considering a larger drawdown than the current one--which would shrink the U.S. presence to a pre-surge level of about 130,000, he added: "Certainly there is a possibility of that." In fact, one Pentagon contractor who is working on the long-term U.S. plans for Iraq says that the administration is considering new configurations of forces that could reduce troop levels to well under 100,000, perhaps to as few as 60,000, by the time the next president takes office.

The upshot is that the next president, Democrat or Republican, is likely to be handed a fait accompli that could well render moot his or her own elaborate withdrawal plans, especially the ones being considered by the two leading Democratic contenders, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama, undeterred by the reported success of Bush's surge, is pushing ahead with his plans for a brigade-a-month withdrawals that would remove the U.S. military presence entirely. If current Defense Secretary Robert Gates can draw down to, say, 12 brigades by 2009, a senior Obama adviser told me Friday, "then we can get the rest out in eight to 10 months."

But Bush may have the upper hand now. The president touted the surge's success on Saturday, and he reiterated that "long-term success will require active U.S. engagement that outlasts my presidency." The "enduring relationship" he is building with Iraq, Bush added, "will have diplomatic, economic and security components--similar to relationships we have with Kuwait and other nations in this region and around the world." Some of those relationships have now lasted decades. And as in Japan, Germany, Korea and Kuwait, they include a substantial troop presence. Far away in the Persian Gulf, Bush is creating facts on the ground that the next president may not be able to ignore.