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Long-Term Pact with Iraq Raises Questions

President Bush (right) meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in New York, Sept. 25, 2007.
Jim Watson
/
AFP/Getty Images
President Bush (right) meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in New York, Sept. 25, 2007.

President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a joint letter in November. On the surface, the "Declaration of Principles" appears as a mutual "expression of friendship," as it has been characterized by administration officials.

But a closer look reveals a blueprint for how the two administrations plan to set the foundation for the future of America's involvement in Iraq.

When administration officials describe that vision, the language they use is vague. The president recently spoke of an "enduring relationship." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talks about "a relationship with Iraq for the long term." Defense Secretary Robert Gates outlined "a mutually agreed arrangement whereby we have a long and enduring presence."

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA) says such language is vague, and he has launched a series of congressional hearings to find out what it means.

He's asked administration officials to testify but, so far, they've all either ignored him or declined. Delahunt says they have declined because he and other lawmakers want to get a sense of secret negotiations under way between Pentagon and State Department officials and their Iraqi counterparts on the future relationship between Washington and Baghdad.

The "Declaration of Principles" includes language that seems run-of-the-mill. The United States will help get Iraq into the World Trade Organization. The two countries will engage in scientific and cultural exchanges.

'Internal and External Threats'

But it also includes a provision that promises to maintain the stability of Iraq's government from "internal and external threats." This sentence is raising alarms for some U.S. lawmakers.

Any such agreement would be considered a treaty by many legal experts. And under the U.S. Constitution, treaties have to be ratified by Congress.

"The declaration of principles would appear to commit the United States to keeping the elected Iraqi government in power against internal threats," says Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service. "I leave it to the lawyers to determine whether that's the definition of a treaty or not but it certainly seems to be — is going to be — a hefty U.S. commitment to Iraq for a long time."

Such a hefty commitment would be unprecedented in the history of American foreign policy.

Treaty or Agreement?

The administration strenuously denies this is a treaty and has already made it clear that it won't take the issue to Congress.

Instead, administration officials compare the impending U.S.-Iraq military relationship to a "status of forces" agreement. The United States has about 100 of these military relationships with countries around the world.

They outline everything from what types of operations American troops can conduct in a foreign country to which laws the troops fall under. Usually, there's a provision that grants U.S. servicemen and women immunity from criminal prosecution in the host country.

The best-known examples are in Japan, South Korea and Germany.

And under the law, the president is entitled to broker a status-of-forces agreement without congressional approval.

"The president, as the commander in chief, can enter into an agreement and in theory, certainly as complex an agreement as he deems appropriate and necessary under the circumstances," says retired Gen. Michael Nardotti, formerly the Army's top lawyer.

But in the case of Iraq, even the most optimistic assessments don't expect the situation there to become as stable as Japan or South Korea for decades.

"Bases of the U.S. around the world are not situated in an occupied country," explains Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi political activist who recently testified before Congress on this issue. "For example, U.S. forces in Japan can't just go out of their bases and [set up] a checkpoint in Tokyo. They can't go around Tokyo arresting Japanese people."

And in Japan or South Korea, the U.S. military isn't allowed to maintain internal stability. In other words, it can't protect those governments from internal threats. Indeed, in South Korea, two governments have been overthrown in coups in the past 50 years. The U.S. military could not and did not intervene.

In fact, the United States has no such agreement with any country that guarantees the integrity of the host country's government.

The U.S. has agreements with a few allies — including Japan, South Korea, Australia/New Zealand and NATO — to protect them from external threats. But in each of these cases, the U.S. signed a treaty that required ratification by two-thirds of the U.S. Senate.

"What's different about this agreement," says the Congressional Research Services' Katzman, "is the government in Iraq came about through a U.S.-led process and presumably the U.S. would be, in essence, defending the integrity of an Iraqi government. So there would be, presumably, internal security responsibilities that the United States would be performing."

A Long Commitment

And critics fear that kind of commitment could last decades.

"To embrace an agreement that could be invoked in the event of an Iraqi civil war, I think, is an extremely dangerous course to take," Delahunt says.

For their part, Iraqi leaders aren't mincing words. They call the upcoming agreement a treaty. At a recent press conference in Baghdad, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called it a "long-term treaty."

Yet nearly half of Iraq's elected members of Parliament have signed a letter demanding a full U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq within the next two years.

But Iraq's top Cabinet ministers — people who depend on U.S. protection and the same officials negotiating on Iraq's behalf — have implied that large numbers of U.S. troops will be needed in Iraq for at least another decade.

That poses a problem because the U.S. Congress has passed three laws that prohibit any U.S. funding for permanent U.S. military installations in Iraq.

'Enduring' vs. 'Permanent' Agreement

But according to Kurt Campbell — a top Pentagon official during the 1990s and now the head of the Center for a New American Security — there are also ways around that.

"While no one will say anything about permanent bases, [there are] lots of ways to create the potential for bases to be in Iraq for decades to come," he says.

So White House and Pentagon lawyers may opt to use adjectives like "enduring" or "continuing" instead of the word "permanent" when they announce the final agreement.

And to Campbell, the agreement is an attempt, "in the last days of the Bush administration, to hand a new administration a done deal."

The Senate is expected to consider a bill that would block the president from signing such an agreement with the Iraqi government. If the White House ignores the measures, Delahunt and others say the issue could go all the way to the Supreme Court.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Guy Raz
Guy Raz is an independent producer who has been described by the New York Times as "one of the most popular podcasters in history."