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The Iraq War isn’t over yet. The debate over how and when it will end mostly is.

A few years ago, while discussing the failure of the U.S. Armed Forces to have enough up-armored humvees, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld uttered an infamous quote about how “you have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want.” Well, after five years of more or less static debate about the Iraq War it appears that both Republicans and Democrats are going to have to accept that you have to go into an election with the war you have, not the war you want.

As I’ve been trying to explain for months, the situation in Iraq has been changing for the better. Recently, the security gains have led to rapid political change in Iraq. Both McCain and Obama had long ago staked out the positions that they thought they would go into November with. Unfortunately for them, but fortunately for both Iraq and the United States, the facts on the ground have changed.

Last week I informed you that independent journalist Michael Yon had called the end of the Iraq War. I didn’t have much to say about it at the time because, well, it sounded a little bit premature. Oh what a difference a week makes.

Last Friday, President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki agreed that in the area of security cooperation (read: American occupation) improving conditions “should allow for the agreements now under negotiation to include a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals — such as the resumption of Iraqi security control in their cities and provinces and the further reduction of U.S. combat forces from Iraq. The President and Prime Minister agreed that the goals would be based on continued improving conditions on the ground and not an arbitrary date for withdrawal.”

Wow. So the American government and the Iraqi government are in agreement that security conditions have sufficiently improved to the point that there should be a “further reduction of U.S. combat forces from Iraq.”

Bush and Maliki did not agree on an exact time-frame for these reductions. Talks between the United States and Iraq are initially focused on getting US troops out of Iraqi cities by the end of the year, reducing front-line troops and placing the US in a logistical and fire-support role.

“On substantive issues, there’s not much daylight between the two sides,” said a US official close to the troop talks with the Iraqi government. The troops will leave when the Iraqis are ready to take over. But they [Iraqi leaders] need to get what they need, and to get cover for it. It is politics – how you package it, how you sell it to your people. They want our support, but they also want to show that there’s progress towards sovereignty.”

Over the next year there will be elections in both the United States and in Iraq. Politicians on both sides of the world are rapidly trying to spin events and take positions that are acceptable to their respective electorates.

Over the weekend Maliki dropped a bombshell on the McCain campaign, seeming to endorse Obama’s withdrawal time-frame in an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel. What exactly Maliki said is uncertain. Der Spiegel itself promulgated two different translations to the question: “would you hazard a prediction as to when most of the US troops will finally leave Iraq?”

As soon as possible, as far as we’re concerned. US presidential candidate Barack Obama is right when he talks about 16 months. Assuming that positive developments continue, this is about the same time period that corresponds to our wishes.

At some point Der Spiegel changed the translation to this:

As soon as possible, as far as we’re concerned. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.

The New York Times translated the statement as follows:

“Obama’s remarks that — if he takes office — in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq.” He continued: “Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq.”

These quotes and how to interpret them set off a firestorm in American politics. Was he endorsing Obama? Was the translation correct? Does this doom McCain’s campaign?

The McCain campaign quickly tried to jump in front of the bus by talking up the
success of the surge. “I repeat my statement that we have succeeded in Iraq — not we are succeeding — we have succeeded in Iraq,” he said. “The strategy has worked and we now have the Iraqi government and military in charge in the major cities in Iraq. Al Qaeda is on their heels and on the run.”

According to McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb, “John McCain has said he will only support a withdrawal based on conditions on the ground. It is our belief that the Iraqi leaders share that view. The disposition of a sovereign, democratically elected government is one of the conditions that will be taken into account.”

There are two ways to view what is going on in Iraqi politics. First, it is possible that the Iraqi government absolutely wants a fixed timetable for a complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Alternatively, its possible that the Iraqi government wants the U.S. military to reduce its role as soon as possible, but that they are not in favor of a complete withdrawal in the near to intermediate term. For internal political reasons however it is necessary for the Maliki government to powerfully bang the Iraqi sovereignty drum in an Iraqi election year.

The Iraqi leadership knows that Iraqi’s dislike the U.S. presence and that at some point the American presence contributes more to instability than to stability. What is clear is that the Iraqi leadership has determined that they want and need a “time horizon to achieve a full handover of security responsibility to the Iraqi forces in order to decrease American forces and allow for its withdrawal from Iraq.”

But Iraqi calls for troop withdrawals should not be confused with a rejection of America completely. Iraqi’s are rapidly embracing their own form of democracy, however flawed and fragile it may currently be.

But even the most extreme of these hubristic Shia advisers [to Maliki] strongly favor a partnership with the United States. “Iraq is flying west,” one of them told me over a dinner of rice, kabobs, and masghouf (a fish dish). The debate over the details of the military arrangements for 2009 has overshadowed a much more important point, he said, echoing the comments of the young people at the party headquarters we visited: Iraq wants American help of every kind. The security arrangements must be seen within the context of this larger partnership, he added. Like American politicians, of course, he and the rest of Iraq’s leaders have to figure out how to sell any specific agreement to the parliament–and to the voters. That makes negotiations difficult, but it is also the strongest possible sign of hope in Iraq.

It seems to me that Maliki’s seeming endorsement of Barack Obama’s troop withdrawal plan is “part of Baghdad’s strategy to play U.S. politics for the best deal possible over America’s military mission.”

The goal is not necessarily to push out the Americans quickly, but instead give Iraqis a major voice in how long U.S. troops stay and what they will do while still there.

It also is designed to refurbish the nationalist credentials of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who owes his political survival to the steadfast support of President Bush.

But the Iraqi’s also know that they will continue to need American help for some years to come, even if the security situation continues to stabilize.

In other words, Maliki is not really trying to push U.S. troops out by mid-2010, as Senator Obama proposes. In fact he’s being careful to say that a mid-2010 departure is a “hope”—not a firm demand. (His spokesman explained today that “the government did not endorse a fixed date.”) He is playing politics—Iraqi politics. The fact that it’s having an impact on U.S. politics is probably an unintended byproduct from Maliki’s viewpoint.

The reality is this. McCain more or less agrees with the Bush Administration approach. Bush and Maliki have developed the framework for an agreement which will result in the withdrawal of all American troops over the next few years. Maliki has seemingly endorsed Obama’s withdrawal timeline.

Unfortunately, we’re going to spend the next three months listening to McCain and Obama try and differentiate their positions. We’re going to listen to McCain advocate against a “fixed timeline.” We’re going to listen to Obama continue to deny the success of a “Surge” which resulted in the viability of a successful withdrawal along the time frame which he has been advocating.

That is not to say that their positions are going to be entirely alike. I still believe that Obama’s position is more dangerous for international and American security than McCain’s. But unlike even five months ago, the end result is likely to be the same. The Iraqi people have seemingly turned against violence and civil war. The Iraqi Army is on the verge of capably being able to handle Iraq’s internal security with minimal American assistance. The United States will mostly be fully withdrawn Iraq by the end of 2010.

The Iraq War isn’t over yet. The debate over how and when it will end mostly is.