Amir Taheri repeats the charge he leveled on Monday - Obama improperly negotiated with Iraqi leaders in an attempt to delay the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq. The original story, the Obama "denial" (which seemed to admit the charge) and my own thoughts noting that Obama's website jibes with Taheri's version are in this earlier post.
To recap briefly, the US is negotiating both a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and a Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) with Iraq. The SOFA would cover the legal status of US forces in Iraq and is needed by Dec 31, when the UN mandate expires. The SFA would be a long term deal describing the economic, diplomatic, and military relationship between the countries. Taheri alleged that Obama was urging the Iraqis to go slow on the Status of Forces Agreement, which eventually covered the topic of US troop withdrawals; Obama's response was that they discussed a delay in the Strategic Framework Agreement. My point - at Obama's website the line between SOFA and SFA is blurry, so at a minimum Obama may have confused his Iraqi counterparts, which is a risky business. And one might well wonder, why is Obama describing a US position anyway? He ought to be hearing their views, not presenting those of the United States and negotiating on Bush's behalf. With that background, let's pick up with Taheri's latest:
Here is how NBC reported Obama's position on June 16, after his conversation in the US with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari: "Obama also told Zebari, he said, that Congress should be involved in any negotiations regarding a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq. He suggested it may be better to wait until the next administration to negotiate such an agreement."
In other words, Obama wanted a delay on the Status of Forces Agreement, not on the Strategic Framework Agreement - as his rebuttal now claims.
Hmm, this was widely reported - here is the NY Times Caucus blog's account of that same June 16 event:
As Mr. Obama arrived in Michigan for a campaign stop on the economy, he shared details of his morning telephone call with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. On Sunday, Mr. Zebari had a face-to-face meeting with Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee.
Among the issues being discussed with the two presidential candidates is the long-term security accord between Iraq and the United States. While the Bush administration would like to see an agreement reached before the summer’s political conventions, Mr. Obama said today that he opposed such a timetable.
“My concern is that the Bush administration, in a weakened state politically, ends up trying to rush an agreement that in some ways might be binding to the next administration, whether it’s my administration or Senator McCain’s administration,” Mr. Obama said. “The foreign minister agreed that the next administration should not be bound by an agreement that’s currently made.”
That version gives a bit of oxygen to the Obama side; where NBC specifically cites he Status of Forces Agreement, the Times refers vaguely to a "long term security accord". ABC News offers a third choice - Obama mentioned both:
Obama said Zebari told him the Iraqi government is deeply interested in negotiating an effective Status of Forces agreement and a strategic framework agreement with the United States — agreements that would hammer out rules for U.S. troop operations in Iraq.
So far, talks between the U.S. and Iraq have stalled, and the agreements remain controversial inside Iraq and the United States. Obama said he told the Iraqi foreign minister that the U.S. has no interest in establishing permanent bases in Iraq.
"I emphasized to him how encouraged I was by the reductions in violence in Iraq, but also insisted that it is important for us to begin the process of withdrawing U.S. troops, making clear that we have no interest in permanent bases in Iraq, that any negotiations for a Status of Forces agreement or strategic framework agreement should be done in the open and with Congress's authorization, because I believe that it's in the interests of both Iraq and the United States that any such critical negotiations have strong bipartisan support and that they can be sustained through a future administration," Obama told reporters.
Fox News supports the ABC quote mentioning both. That supports Taheri's reporting - at his website Obama says that
The Bush administration must submit the agreement to Congress or allow the next administration to negotiate an agreement that has bipartisan support...
and it appears he hewed to that line with the press. If he told Zebari the same thing, Zebari might well have come away with the idea that the next Administration ought to negotiate the SOFA.
In any case, subsequent Times reporting from July 3 reinforces Taheri - this is an account of a press conference with the Iraqi Foreign Minister:
Noting that the United States cannot stay in Iraq without legal authorization, Mr. Zebari cited three options: “Either we conclude a status of forces agreement; or we have an interim agreement until a SOFA can be completed; or we go back to the Security Council at the end of the year and ask for another extension.”
Mr. Zebari said that on his recent trip to the United States, in addition to President Bush, he had met with the presumptive presidential nominees, Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, and Senator Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat.
He said that Mr. Obama had asked him: “ ‘Why is the Iraqi government in a rush, in a hurry? This administration has only a few more months in office.’ ”
Mr. Zebari said he told Mr. Obama that even a Democratic administration would be better off having something “concrete in front of them to take a hard look at.”
Mr. Zebari also indicated that even a full agreement would be short. “We are not talking about 50 years, 25 years or 10 years; we are negotiating about one or two years, so this is not going to be another colonization of Iraq,” he said.
Well, the Strategic Framework Agreement would not be a one or two year document; from the context of the discussion, it seems fair to infer that Zebari is discussing the SOFA.
From multiple accounts it seems clear that Barack was urging the Iraqis to go slow on something. And based on the confusion at Obama's website, I would say that at a minimum Obama may have confused the Iraqi Foreign Minister (and the NBC reporter). As to why he was offering these points rather than humbly listening, who knows?
And who cares! Zachary Roth, a TPM Muckraker, presents a defense of Obama with wisps of plausibility masking an empty box:
But there are a couple reasons why the bloviation looks to be uncalled for. The Obama camp yesterday put out a statement of its own asserting that the story "bears as much resemblance to the truth as a McCain campaign commercial," and charging that Taheri has confused a long-term Status of Forces agreement with negotations over a shorter-term drawdown.
Well, now wait - if the Obama defense is that the foreign leaders to whom Obama was speaking got confused by what he was saying, that is not much of a defense. Just words? If Taheri is confused it is because Zebari (and an NBC reporter) are also confused.
It's worth looking at that distinction more closely to get a sense of what the Obama camp means here and where Taheri may have erred. In terms of a Status of Forces agreement, Obama has consistently made clear that he believes any such agreement should be delayed until after the election -- so that a President Obama or McCain would not be bound by an agreement negotiated by a weakened Bush administration. The McCain camp did not object when, in June, Obama told reporters at a press conference that he had made exactly this argument to Zebari in a phone call.
Well, the non-objection by the McCain campaign means nothing, obviously - they have enough to do running their own campaign without also being obliged to track every utterance of The One. But isn't it great that we have a diligent watchdog press ready to record Obama's foreign policy gaffes?
As to the point that Obama has consistently called for a delay in the SOFA, well, I sort of took that from the website, and now Roth is admitting the charge himself (or maybe Roth is confused - it's catching!).
So let's recap his defense - Obama has consistently called for a delay in the SOFA but when Taheri reports that Obama suggested a delay in the SOFA to Zebari, Taheri was confused (as was an NBC reporter). Hmm, now I'm confused, too - the plan is working! But I lean towards the simpler explanation - Obama has consistently called for a delay in SOFA, explained that to Zebari, and subsequent reports are accurate.
This Roth defense doesn't cut it - if Obama can't communicate clearly he would do well to keep quiet, however difficult that may be for him. Given Obama's penchant for "foreign policy by gaffe", as with his revised pledge of unconditional meetings with foreign leaders or his revised promise of an undivided Jerusalem, maybe a bit of silent contemplation before he takes to the world stage would be a great idea.
BACKSTORY: More on the Obama "denial" at The American Spectator:
STANDING BY THE STORY
The Obama campaign spent more than five hours on Monday attempting to figure out the best refutation of the explosive New York Post report that quoted Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari as saying that Barack Obama during his July visit to Baghdad demanded that Iraq not negotiate with the Bush Administration on the withdrawal of American troops. Instead, he asked that they delay such negotiations until after the presidential handover at the end of January.
The three problems, according to campaign sources: The report was true, there were at least three other people in the room with Obama and Zebari to confirm the conversation, and there was concern that there were enough aggressive reporters based in Baghdad with the sources to confirm the conversation that to deny the comments would create a bigger problem.
PILING ON: Villainous Company is excellent.
WHERE I DIFFER WITH TAHERI: It certainly appears that Obama was interfering with negotiations between Bush and a foreign leader, which ought to be a big story (but won't be, for obvious reasons). However, I dispute his notion that this would have delayed a US troop withdrawal - Zebari stated at different times that some sort of stopgap SOFA would have been put in place by the Dec 31 deadline, and in any case a decision by the US to withdraw some of our troops would not be blocked by the lack of a formal SOFA.