In the unfolding Maliki/Obama story, here are two new articles you should read. The first is in Monday’s New York Times. Though the headline is misleading (“Iraqi Premier Steps Back on U.S. Troops Comment”), the article itself is quite good. And it contains two key details.
First, any question of mistranslation or misunderstanding is put to rest. The interpreter was al Maliki’s, not Der Spiegel’s. And Der Spiegel provided the Times with a tape recording of the interview, which was then independently translated and confirmed the accuracy of the original Der Spiegel account.
There is also a more detailed explanation of the White House’s pressure on the Iraqi government (first reported in the Post) to walk back Maliki’s comments. The gist of the White House’s explanation is that the Iraqis and Maliki specifically were simply too unsophisticated to grasp the implications of Maliki’s remarks.
The key passage from the Times …
The interview prompted immediate concern from the Bush administration, which called to seek clarification from Mr. Maliki’s office, American officials said.
Scott M. Stanzel, a White House spokesman with President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., said that embassy officials explained to the Iraqis how the interview in Der Spiegel was being interpreted, given that it came just a day after the two governments publicly announced an agreement over American troops.
“The Iraqis were not aware and wanted to correct it,” he said.
For those unconvinced by this wet-behind-the-ears theory of the remarks, AP Baghdad Bureau Chief Robert Reid portrays the controversy as part of the Maliki’s government’s effort to take the upper hand in negotiations with US over the future of the American military deployment in the country.
Writes Reid: “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.” Key issues are “U.S. demands for extensive basing rights, control of Iraqi airspace and immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law for U.S. soldiers and private contractors.”
Part of Reid’s argument is that Maliki’s remarks are intended in part as bows to public opinion within Iraq. Indeed, this seems to be the Bush administration’s basic response to the imbroglio, that this isn’t so much Maliki speaking as Maliki playing to restive Iraqi public opinion.
But as others have argued, to the degree to which we are trying to foster a democracy in Iraq, it is a distinction without a difference. If an Iraqi leader must oppose a continuing US military presence in order to stay in power, then clearly the days of the US military presence in Iraq are numbered.
Any understanding of what is happening here has to begin by dismissing out of hand the White House’s ludicrous and insulting suggestion that Maliki didn’t realize what he was saying. I assume we’re all grown up enough to realize that Maliki didn’t just give Obama’s plan a thumbs-up for no other reason than that he thought it sounded like a good idea. As the Times notes, upon reviewing the taped interview in the original, it was Maliki and not the Spiegel interviewers who raised Obama’s name. There are, yes, various levels of nuance and jockeying. But what it comes down to is what it looked like at the start. The premise of John McCain’s campaign is that Obama’s timetable for withdrawal from Iraq shows his naivete and threatens to squander the improvements on the ground in the country. But Maliki, who is constantly presented as the embodiment of what we are trying to foster and build, disagrees. No amount of teeth-gnashing spin from the McCain camp will get around that fact.