The White House's overriding goal for Iraq is to keep the lid on it until after the election. This is not easy. Cutting and running would, in the best case, leave Islamic fundamentalists in charge (bad TV), and in the worst case lead quickly to civil war (very bad TV if reporters are brave).
Staying in charge leads to casualties like we are seeing. They can keep the images off TV, but probably not the newspapers. Staying in charge incites the militants.
The original plan was to transfer sovereignty on June 30, declare victory, and bring a few thousand troops home. This would allow Bush to say that the rest would be home soon — see the downpayment. Meanwhile, in the background, there would be a Status of Forces agreement with the new Chalabi government in which the US got to have nice forward bases well suited for defending or quietly (or not quietly) menacing strategic oil reserves. [The very original plan had been to sign the SoF agreement with the current Governing Council, but that proved too raw for everyone.]
That's all gone pear shaped. The administration is now reduced to forlornly chanting that it is staying on schedule for a handover of sovereignty, although it no longer has control over to whom that will be, the initiative having passed either to the UN or to the arab street (funny we don't hear about that street these days, isn't it? that meme was all over the papers a year ago).
One obvious consequence of handing over sovereignty in ten weeks to unknown parties is that it's no longer certain they will be the tame poodle that the administration persists in believing it has in Chalabi (despite the contrary evidence). If serious Islamicists are going to be in charge, or even in partial charge, they are not going to sign a status of forces agreement, and they are not going to do what the US tells them.
The writing being on the wall, it is being read. And folks in the administration don't like what it says. Thus, the logical next move is to float the trial balloon that maybe the handover — still on schedule, you understand — will be somewhat more formal and less substantive than in version 1.0.
White House Says Iraq Sovereignty Could Be Limited. The Bush administration's plans for a new caretaker government in Iraq would place severe limits on its sovereignty, including only partial command over its armed forces and no authority to enact new laws, administration officials said Thursday.
Sovereignty without meaningful control. A 'sovereign' government that can neither change existing laws nor command the armed forces. Sounds like Cuba in Guantanamo to me. The administration's position in front of the Supreme Court this week was that the Cubans have 'sovereignty' over the base, but the US has control. In this view, as a result of the lack of this metaphysical 'sovereignty' the US courts have no power there … but neither do the Cubans.
It appears that the administration now proposes a transfer of 'sovereignty' for Iraq that will give the recipients the same great powers over their country that Castro enjoys over Guantanamo—and for the same sorts of reasons. The locals cannot be trusted to do what they are told.
How nice that we are instructing the Middle East on the finer points of democracy. What a shame that the lesson is so expensive, especially in lives, both for us and for them.
Ten weeks is a long time in warfare, and the situation remains very fluid on the ground. The diplomatic position, however, may be less fluid, and the administration's trial balloon is likely to be shot at by numerous foreign governments—and even our own. As the NYT describes it,
These restrictions to the plan negotiated with Lakhdar Brahimi, the special United Nations envoy, were presented in detail for the first time by top administration officials at Congressional hearings this week, culminating in long and intense questioning on Thursday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's hearing on the goal of returning Iraq to self-rule on June 30.
The administration's plans seem likely to face objections on several fronts. Several European and United Nations diplomats have said in interviews that they do not think the United Nations will approve a Security Council resolution sought by Washington that handcuffs the new Iraq government in its authority over its own armed forces, let alone foreign forces on its soil.
These diplomats, and some American officials, said that if the American military command ordered a siege of an Iraqi city, for example, and there was no language calling for an Iraqi government to participate in the decision, the government might not be able to survive protests that could follow.
The diplomats added that it might be unrealistic to expect the new Iraqi government not to demand the right to change Iraqi laws put in place by the American occupation under L. Paul Bremer III, including provisions limiting the influence of Islamic religious law.
Democratic and Republican senators appeared frustrated on Thursday that so few details were known at this late stage in the transition process, and several senators focused on the question of who would be in charge of Iraq's security.
Asked whether the new Iraqi government would have a chance to approve military operations led by American commanders, who would be in charge of both foreign and Iraqi forces, a senior official said Americans would have the final say.
“The arrangement would be, I think as we are doing today, that we would do our very best to consult with that interim government and take their views into account,” said Marc Grossman, under secretary of state for political affairs. But he added that American commanders will “have the right, and the power, and the obligation” to decide.
That formulation is especially sensitive at a time when American and Iraqi forces are poised to fight for control of Falluja.
In another sphere, Mr. Grossman said there would be curbs on the powers of the National Conference of Iraqis that Mr. Brahimi envisions as a consultative body. The conference, he said, is not expected to pass new laws or revise the laws adopted under the American occupation.
Sovereignty, but no control over the major military force in-country, and no power to pass laws or revise old ones. At least it should make the Iraqi interim government's task of 'governing' quite easy…