This article originally appeared at The Nation on July 13, 2008.
There's an emerging story that Iraqi leaders--notably Nouri al-Maliki--are standing up to the United States by demanding a timeline for withdrawal. See, for example, the latest New York Times account  on July 11, one of many in recent days. But far from this portrayal, it is more likely that al-Maliki and the Pentagon are conspiring to fool public opinion in both countries during an election year by finally promising a withdrawal deadline, with vague parameters of three to five years--if conditions allow, says an al-Maliki spokesman. What's going on here?
As Congressional leaders like Rep. William Delahunt are beginning to point out, public opinion in both countries strongly favors a one-year deadline for American troop withdrawals. This has been the case for at least two years, as I pointed out in my 2007 book, Ending the War in Iraq . In addition, a the tide of Iraqi parliamentarians petitioning for a rapid end of the occupation has been a majority since last summer, mirroring the majority sentiment in the US Congress.
Official Iraqi pandering to public opinion is an old story by now. Even before the first January 2005 Iraqi election, the CIA issued a "grim" warning that the new government "promised they will press Washington for a timetable, and [CIA] assessments say the new government will feel bound, at least publicly, to meet that commitment." [NYT, Jan.19, 2005 ] Three years later, the public pressure on al-Maliki--from Iraqis and from American opinion--is far worse.
This, then, is a crisis of democracy in both countries, one that is little if ever mentioned in the New York Times or the mainstream media, as if they carry a "write-man's burden."
The flurry of posturing now arises from three realities:
1) The United Nations authorization of the American-led occupation (Multi-National Force Iraq-MNF) expires December 31;
2) The November US election features a leading candidate, Barack Obama, who favors the withdrawal of combat troops by 2010;
3) The US-backed Iraq government has agreed, reluctantly, to hold provincial elections by this November, as well. The Iraqi elections, when and if they occur, will result in gains for disenfranchised Sunnis and for Moktada al-Sadr's Shi'a forces who long have favored expelling the Americans.
In other words, the electorates in both countries are threatening to topple the principal warmakers at the ballot box.
Such a popular democratic outcome is intolerable to al-Maliki's circle, to the Pentagon, to the Republicans, to neoconservatives, and apparently unthinkable to the mainstream media.
That's why al-Maliki's forces have been trying to wreck Sadrist strongholds in the South and even in Sadr City while at the same time currying favor with voters by posturing as favoring some sort of American withdrawal deadline. The Sadrists have mainly avoided bloody clashes with al-Maliki's troops and the Americans behind them, so as to preserve their organizational capacity to challenge the regime at the polls in November. Since the Iranians have ties to both Shi'a factions, it can be assumed that they favor an outcome that leaves the Pentagon at a further disadvantage in its quest for permanent occupation.
On the US side, as I have written before, there has been a two-fold strategy. The Biddle Plan, named for Stephen Biddle, an adviser to Gen. David Petreaus, aims to make both Shi'a and Sunni dependent on a continued American military presence, allegedly to keep the sectarian factions from descending into civil war. Then there's the America homefront, where Petraeus's strategy is to "set back the clock" of public pressure for troop withdrawals. Think tanks like the Center for a New American Security favor a five-to-eight-year withdrawal in order to avoid their nightmare of a more rapid pullout forced by American voters in November. Their dueling rivals at the Center for American Progress favor a one-year withdrawal, but clearly have lost the think-tank competition (which may not matter since they have overlapping boards).
The most that can be expected at this stage are November electoral mandates from both American and Iraqi voters for peace and a speedy withdrawal. This will not be easy, despite the peace majorities entrenched in both countries. In the meantime, Congressional debate over the secret US-Iraq "status of forces" agreement will keep the issues front-and-center.
If Barack Obama goes through with his high-risk plan to visit Iraq (and Afghanistan), he may be confronted by US military commanders and Iraqi leaders questioning his sixteen-month timetable as naïve and threatening to national security. On the other hand, Obama risks demoralization within his electoral base if he wavers on basics.
Meanwhile, in John McCain, the hawks have found the perfect iconic candidate for keeping the Iraq war alive through the present depths of its democratic legitimacy crisis. McCain's election would serve the interests of the Pentagon, revive the neoconservative era and further deepen the conflict between democracy and empire.