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While there’s a lot of attention on picking a new president, you might not want to take your eye off the current one.

The idea, once scandalous, that Bush would just be handing the Iraq mess off to his successor is now an accepted reality. But he won’t be doing it in an informal way, either.

Since last year, the administration has been working towards a long-term security agreement with Iraq, an “enduring relationship,” as they had it. The basic outlines were clear: a long-term American troop presence in Iraq and preferential treatment for American investments in return for a guarantee of security for the Iraqis.

To give you an idea of the outline, the Iraqis said that it would be silly to expect that Iraq would be able to defend itself alone until at least 2018. Forever seems a fair conservative estimate.

But there was a problem. There was a strong case to be made that for the administration to strike such a deal without the consent of the Senate was unconstitutional. Democrats were set to fight such a move.

You know what Bush and Cheney think about asking Congress for anything. So, abruptly, the administration’s position changed. The administration would be striking a long-term pact along the same lines, but there would be no security guarantee. None at all. According to the letter of the agreement, if Iraq were attacked, we’d just let it burn.

For some reason, some cynics think this is just a workaround. Without the actual security guarantee, the administration can hammer out the treaty without any hassle from Congress.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) is such a cynic. And yesterday Ackerman had the opportunity to press David Satterfield, the State Department’s Iraq coordinator, about the deal. The exchange, printed today in The Washington Post, had that taint of absurdity so common to Congressional testimony from administration officials:

Update: Here’s video of Ackerman’s questioning.

Ackerman: Is there any way in the world that [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] thinks that we are going to defend Iraq if Iraq is attacked?

Satterfield: Mr. Chairman, the secretary of defense, secretary of state, the president, the vice president in all of their conversations with the prime minister and other senior Iraqi officials have been quite clear on what our intent is in Iraq, what our obligations are in Iraq and what they are not. I do not believe such a potential misunderstanding exists.

Ackerman: Has this been explicitly explained to him that, if Iraq is attacked, that we have no obligation to enter into any combat missions?

Satterfield: The secretary of defense has made very clear exactly those points.

Ackerman: And Mr. Maliki is satisfied with that assurance or non-assurance or lack of assurance? . . .

Satterfield: Mr. Chairman, Prime Minister Maliki is strongly supportive, as we understand, for the initiation of negotiations about to begin on exactly the basis which I have described to you.

Ackerman: What will happen if Iraq is attacked?

Satterfield: Mr. Chairman, as would be the case of an attack on any friend and partner of the United States, the administration would have to consider, in consultation with the Congress, what would be the best measures to take in defense of United States’ interests in such an eventuality.

Ackerman: If Iraq is attacked, are you stating uncategorically that the administration will take no action . . . until an appropriate course of action is decided, in consultation with the Congress?

Satterfield: Mr. Chairman, the administration will act as any administration would act in defense of U.S. interests.

Ackerman: I’m afraid of that.

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