With reports that a long-negotiated draft status of forces agreement has been submitted to the Iraqi parliament, it’s interesting that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright chose this moment to come out against one of the agreement’s most significant planks, a target date for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops:
[Sec. Albright] said Thursday the Iraq war has created damaging consequences for U.S. diplomacy, but Washington should not agree to a specific deadline for withdrawing troops in the midst of conflict – something proposed last year by the candidate she now supports, Sen. Barack Obama.
“I never was for a date certain,” Mrs. Albright told editors and reporters at The Washington Times. “In Bosnia, we gave a date certain, and then we couldn’t get out and that undercut our credibility.” […]
Mrs. Albright called for “a plan to get out [of Iraq] in a systematic way.” She said she supports a timeline, which she insisted is different from a “date certain.”
Even recognizing what a subjective thing “credibility” is in debates about international politics, I’m unaware of any evidence that would support Sec. Albright’s claim that U.S. credibility was undercut by our not getting out of Bosnia by the appointed date.
As to the question of a “timeline” versus a “date certain,” didn’t we already do this dance with President Bush? First, no timeline because a timeline was tantamount to surrendering to Al Qaeda. Then, acknowledgment of a “notional time horizon” or some such. Finally, commitment to a timeline, with a half-hearted attempt to define the timeline as “not a timeline.” It’s now generally understood that we have a timeline, and that when that timeline ends in 2011, U.S. forces will be out of Iraq. Though the agreement still needs to be approved by the Iraqi parliament, it’s unclear why Sec. Albright is playing the sort of semantic games that even the Bush administration has effectively abandoned.
No one that I’m aware of suggests that withdrawal should take place without any regard to “realities on the ground.” What critics of a “date certain” never seem to recognize is that overwhelming Iraqi political opposition to a continued U.S. military presence — coupled with overwhelming Iraqi political support for a set date for withdrawal — represents a pretty significant reality on the ground. Very few seem willing to even consider that removing the U.S. military from Iraq is itself a prerequisite for sustainable Iraqi political accommodation, and that an open-ended U.S. military commitment — even one with some vaguely defined withdrawal date — acts a disincentive for necessary compromises.