Last July, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said U.S. troops should be out of Iraq “as soon as possible” and endorsed Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-IL) withdrawal plan. Obama “talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right time frame for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes,” Maliki told Der Spiegel magazine.
Days later, as Obama wrapped up meetings with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh reiterated his government’s stance, saying “the end of 2010 is the appropriate time for the withdrawal.”
Negotiating the post-UN mandate security agreement with Iraq, Bush argued for more time and both sides ultimately agreed that all U.S. troops would be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, not 2010, even though Bush has said previously that “if they were to say, leave, we would leave.”
Why did Bush go back on his word? A source tells ThinkProgress that White House communications staff were concerned that Maliki’s endorsement of the 2010 time line would damage Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) presidential campaign. Indeed, during an interview with Iraqi television last week (according to an Open Source Center translation), Maliki suggested that the U.S. presidential elections played a role:
Actually, the final date was really the end of 2010 and the period between the end of 2010 and the end of 2011 was for withdrawing the remaining troops from all of Iraq, but they asked for a change [in date] due to political circumstances related to the [U.S] domestic situation so it will not be said to the end of 2010 followed by one year for withdrawal but the end of 2011 as a final date.
In fact, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said that as part of the security agreement, Bush wanted U.S. troops to stay in Iraq even longer. “It was a U.S. proposal for the date which is 2015, and an Iraqi one which is 2010, then we agreed to make it 2011,” Talabani said.
But by endorsing Obama’s time line, Maliki indirectly slighted McCain, who has consistently and strenuously argued against setting a withdrawal date and has even said he wouldn’t mind having U.S. troops in Iraq for 100 years. But Maliki’s new position has left McCain scrambling, first saying its “a pretty good timetable,” but then denying he used “the word timetable” and later settling on “anything is good.”
Despite Bush’s constant refrain that commanders, not politics, will decide the course in Iraq, it seems that trying to help his party retain the White House is more important.
The Wonk Room’s Matt Duss notes: “I would say that I’m shocked, but of course, this is the way that the Bush administration has always treated national security, as just another piece in a political game.”