ABC News leaps to Obama's defense on the question of whether Obama interfered with negotiations between the Bush Administration and the Iraqi government on the Status of Forces Agreement governing the US troop presence in Iraq and/or the Strategic Framework Agreement covering the broader diplomatic, economic and strategic relationship between the two countries.
At this point the McCain camp has over-reached a bit and the Obama camp has enough cover and confusion that their press allies will declare this round for Obama. The truth is more complicated, of course - we can find lies and deceit on the Obama side that more than match the confusion on the McCain side.
ABC News talked to people familiar with the meeting between Obama and Iraq Foreign Minister Zebari in Baghdad during Obama's overseas trip and concluded that Obama had not improperly interfered with the Bush negotiations, as had been originally reported in the NY Post by Amir Taheri:
WHILE campaigning in public for a speedy withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Sen. Barack Obama has tried in private to persuade Iraqi leaders to delay an agreement on a draw-down of the American military presence.
According to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Obama made his demand for delay a key theme of his discussions with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad in July.
However, there were *two* contacts between Obama and Zebari. In a follow-up column defending his original story, Taheri cited a phone call between the two men that occurred in June while Zebari was visiting the United States:
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."
Obama had two contacts with Zebari and the case is pretty strong that Obama urged a delay in the SOFA during the June phone call, based on Obama's own description of the phone call and Zebari's discussion at a subsequent press conference. Although Taheri's original column sparked interest in this story, it is reporting from ABC News, NBC News and the NY Times, as well as Obama's own website that suggest that, at a minimum, Obama sowed confusion in the Iraqi camp, as I emphasized in an earlier post. They admit to this in the latest ABC News story, by the way - talk about your buried lead.
However, that was not what Taheri originally reported - he focused on the Baghdad meeting, and that was what the McCain camp seized upon (my emphasis):
At this point, it is not yet clear what official American negotiations Senator Obama tried to undermine with Iraqi leaders, but the possibility of such actions is unprecedented.... If news reports are accurate, this is an egregious act of political interference by a presidential candidate seeking political advantage overseas. Senator Obama needs to reveal what he said to Iraq's Foreign Minister during their closed door meeting...
That gives ABC News the opening they need to claim to have fully refuted McCain's charge of interference while ignoring the June 16 phone call subsequently offered by Taheri in support of the story.
Let's review some of the deceptions offered by the Obama campaign and dutifully passed along by ABC News:
"Barack Obama has never urged a delay in negotiations," said Obama campaign national security spokesperson Wendy Morigi, "nor has he urged a delay in immediately beginning a responsible drawdown of our combat brigades."
That marks quite a change from the Morigi's initial "denial", which said this in reference to the initial Taheri report about the Baghdad meeting:
Obama had told the Iraqis that they should not rush through a "Strategic Framework Agreement" governing the future of US forces until after President George W. Bush leaves office, [Wendy Morigi] said.
I'll accept that Obama has never urged a delay in troop drawdowns. However, Obama has certainly urged a delay in the Strategic Framework Agreement (as noted in the "denial") and apparently the SOFA as well. Here is how Obama himself described the June 16 phone call:
"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.
Bush has had no intention of involving Congress in this process for either accord. At Obama's website he calls for a delay in both the SOFA and the SFA. And here is Zebari, from a NY Times account of his early July press conference:
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.
The Strategic Framework Agreement would not be a one or two year deal so it seems that Zebari was referring to the SOFA. But in any case, Obama clearly wanted a delay in the negotiation of something, despite the current denial for security adviser Wendy Morigi, which seems to have supplanted the initial "denial" in the ABC reporting.
Here is more bafflegab from Morigi passed along by ABC News:
Morigi said in a statement that "Barack Obama has consistently called for any Strategic Framework Agreement to be submitted to the U.S. Congress so that the American people have the same opportunity for review as the Iraqi parliament."
Again, at his website Obama calls for the SOFA and the SFA to be submitted to Congress and seems to call for a delay in both, so this statement is true but incomplete. Let's reprint the website here (my emphasis):
Obama believes any Status of Forces Agreement, or any strategic framework agreement, should be negotiated in the context of a broader commitment by the U.S. to begin withdrawing its troops and forswearing permanent bases. Obama also believes that any security accord must be subject to Congressional approval. It is unacceptable that the Iraqi government will present the agreement to the Iraqi parliament for approval—yet the Bush administration will not do the same with the U.S. Congress. The Bush administration must submit the agreement to Congress or allow the next administration to negotiate an agreement that has bipartisan support here at home and makes absolutely clear that the U.S. will not maintain permanent bases in Iraq.
Congress has been considering their role in both agreements and Obama certainly does not make a clear distinction between them here. Since Bush has no intention of weakening a traditional Executive Branch prerogative and submitting the SOFA for Congressional review a fair reading of this website is that Obama wants the SOFA to be delayed.
Finally, the Obama people admit to the charge I have been making. If Obama is confusing foreign leaders he ought to pipe down:
It’s possible, Obama advisers believe, that either Zebari or Taheri confused the Strategic Framework Agreement -- which Obama feels should be reviewed by Congress -- with the Status of Forces Agreement, which Obama says the Bush administration should negotiate with the Iraqis as soon as possible.
In light of Obama's previous gaffes with the unconditional pledge to meet with foreign leaders and to keep Jerusalem undivided I think that at a minimum it is highly likely that Obama confused Zebari on the SOFA/SFA point during the June phone call and perhaps during the July meeting. And if Obama's position is that the SOFA should be negotiated post-haste he ought to clarify that at his website - what if foreign leaders are reading it?
I also agree with ABC News that McCain adviser Randy Scheunemann should have poked at this a bit more carefully before plunging in. Bah! Send better candidates.