Obama Should Seek Congressional SOFA Approval

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, a research associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

On the new White House issues website on Iraq, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden state that “Any SOFA [status of forces agreement] should be subject to Congressional review to ensure it has bipartisan support here at home.” We agree with the new administration’s general sentiment goals of consultation, but — as we’ve pointed out earlier — the SOFA contains passages that may contain a defense commitment and necessitate full-blown Congressional approval.

For instance, the SOFA text states:

In the event of any external or internal threat or aggression against Iraq that would violate its sovereignty, political independence, or territorial integrity, waters, airspace, its democratic system or its elected institutions, and upon request by the Government of Iraq, the Parties shall immediately initiate strategic deliberations and, as may be mutually agreed, the United States shall take appropriate measures, including diplomatic, economic, or military measures, or any other measure, to deter such a threat.

When determining whether this passage constitutes a commitment to defend Iraq, the Obama administration should consult a piece of unpassed legislation -– the Iraq Security Agreement Act of 2008 (S.3433) -– that Joe Biden introduced in the Senate last August prior to his selection as President Obama’s running mate. Introduced with the support Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), George Voinovich (R-OH), Jim Webb (D-VA), and the now-retired Chuck Hagel (R-NE), the goal of Biden’s bill was “to ensure that any agreement with Iraq containing a security commitment or arrangement is concluded as a treaty or is approved by Congress.”


Biden and his co-sponsors defined a security commitment as “an obligation, binding under international law, of the United States to act in the common defense in the event of an armed attack on that country.” Similarly, a security arrangement was defined as “a pledge by the United States to take some action in the event of a threat to that country’s security. Security arrangements typically oblige the United States to consult with a country in the event of a threat to its security.”

Biden and company’s definition of a security arrangement is eerily similar to the language contained in the SOFA, and should therefore, under the new vice president’s standards, be subject to some form of Congressional approval -– even if the SOFA doesn’t rise to the level of an official treaty between Iraq and the United States.

President Obama should follow his vice president’s earlier advice and seek Congressional approval for the SOFA. Doing so would help repair the institutional relationship on foreign policy between the executive and legislative branches that has been badly damaged over the last eight years. Sending the SOFA to Congress would send a message that President Obama takes this relationship seriously and means to make it work.

Equally important would be the message a Congressional SOFA approval would send to Iraqis. While the Iraqi parliament has already approved the SOFA, it remains subject to a popular referendum this July. With many Iraqis skeptical that the U.S. will fulfill its end of the SOFA bargain -– withdrawing troops from Iraqi cities by the end of June, and then from the country altogether by the end of 2011 -– Congressional approval of the SOFA may help send a signal that the United States is committed to following both the spirit and letter of the agreement.