Beware the Obama Machine

When I drew attention to the two-faced tactics of the Democratic candidate over Iraq, his ‘militants’ turned nasty

In an opinion piece published by the New York Post in September, I drew public attention to Senator Barack Obama’s attempt to interfere with negotiations between Iraq and the United States regarding the presence of American troops and future defence co-operation between the two countries. I argued that by trying to undercut the incumbent president, Obama had broken a golden rule of American politics and manifested either his naïveté in matters of diplomacy or, worse still, a remarkable degree of cynicism.

At first, the Obama camp tried to ignore the whole matter. However, when it became clear that the issue was attracting massive public interest, it reacted in three ways.

The first was to confirm what I said, but to claim that I had confused the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA). Both agreements are still being negotiated by Washington and Baghdad. SOFA provides the legal basis between the two countries for the continued presence and operation of US armed forces in Iraq after the UN Security Council mandate expires on 31 December. The SFA covers the bilateral relationship between the two countries.

The claim was that Obama had supported the former and opposed the latter. A day after my op-ed piece was published, Obama’s campaign issued a statement, in effect confirming what I had said.

It said, in part, “Senator Obama has consistently said that any security arrangements that outlast this administration should have the backing of the US Congress – especially given the fact that the Iraqi parliament will have the opportunity to vote on it.”

Two days later, the senator issued another statement – also in response to my article – denying that he had ever opposed “a redeployment and responsible drawdown” of US forces in Iraq. But I never said he had. I also never said that he opposed motherhood and apple pie. In any case, no one would oppose “redeployment and responsible drawdown”, which is happening all the time. Redeployment means moving some units from one location to another. Drawdown means reducing the size of the expeditionary force in accordance with the task at hand. Currently, US troops are being redeployed from Anbar province to Salahuddin. There is also drawdown: the number of US troops has been drawn down to 136,000, the lowest since a peak of 170,000 in 2003.

When I quoted Obama’s own words opposing the SOFA, a second tactic was deployed. This consisted of personal attacks on me, with the help of material circulated by my enemies over the years: the Khomeinists, those nostalgic for Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda and its imitators, and Islamofascists who hate me for reasons of their own. The addition of Obamists to the list of my enemies is regrettable but does not change the facts. Obama militants attacked my email accounts and used the marshlands of the internet to unleash the deadly mosquitoes of rumour and innuendo against me. Some called me an Islamic militant who wished to harm Obama because the junior senator from Illinois had abandoned his father’s Muslim faith while opting for Christianity. Others advanced the opposite claim: I was attacking Obama because he was the first Muslim-born politician to have a chance of winning the US presidency. I was threatened with having my US citizenship – which I don’t have and have never applied for – withdrawn by a future Obama administration. Some Obamists, unaware that I do not live in the US, even threatened to reveal my address and expose me to physical violence. Desperate attempts were made to link me to the McCain-Palin campaign or even some cabal of Republican Party stalwarts. However, it soon became clear that I was not an American and had no relationship with either of the political parties there. I was also called a “neocon”, a term apparently applied to a group of leftist Americans who had moved to the Right. The Obamists soon realised that I had always been a conservative and thus did not qualify for the adjective “neo”. The message most often conveyed to me was: withdraw and all will be forgiven.

This did not work, because I was not the issue. Nor would I give in to crass intimidation. The issue was whether the leader of the loyal opposition in the US had tried to interfere with a process of negotiations with a foreign power.

So, a third tactic was deployed. This consisted of denying what I in fact did not say, and then claiming that I was wrong or ill-intentioned.

First, the senator denied that he had opposed “redeployment and drawdown of troops”, something I had not suggested that he had. Then, Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, an anti-Bush Republican, denied something else that I had not said. Assuming a suitable air of indignation, the venerable senator asserted that Obama had not called for a delay in the negotiations during his July meeting in Baghdad with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The problem is that I never suggested that he had done so at that meeting – at which Hagel and a dozen other people were also present.

In my original article in the New York Post, I quoted Obama and the Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on the record. Since then, of course, lots of other material has emerged on the subject. In September, the London-based pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat published a long interview with Zebari, reporting Obama’s attempts at persuading the Iraqi officials to postpone an agreement with the US. However, unbeknown to me, the matter had been in the public domain even before that. This is how The New York Times reported Obama’s conversation with Zebari on 16 June 2008: “While the Bush administration would like to see an agreement reached before the summer political conventions, Mr Obama said today he opposed such a timetable. [He said] ‘My concern is that the Bush administration, in a weakened state politically, ends up trying to rush an agreement that in some way might be binding on the next administration, whether it’s my administration or Senator McCain’s administration…’.” (Did the senator not know that an agreement reached by a US administration with a foreign power is binding on its successor?)

Here is the ABC News version: “Obama said Zebari told him the Iraqi government is deeply interested in negotiating an effective Status of Forces Agreement and a Strategic Framework Agreement with the United States, agreements that would hammer out rules for US troop operations in Iraq.”

ABC News then quotes Obama as telling Zebari that “any negotiations for a Status of Forces Agreement or SFA should be done in the open and with Congress authorisation”.

In other words, Obama was, in effect, telling a foreign official that the present US administration had no authority to conclude agreements with Iraq.

On his websites, Obama confirmed my account: “The Bush administration must submit the agreement to Congress or allow the next administration to negotiate an agreement which has bipartisan support…” Note that he was talking of one agreement, abandoning the attempt at separating SOFA from SFA and claiming that I, Zebari and everyone else had been confused.

Here is how the New York Times reported a press conference by Zebari on 3 July 2008: “Mr Zebari said that on his recent trip to the United States, in addition to President Bush, he met with the presumptive presidential nominees, Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, and Senator Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat. He said that Mr Obama asked him: ‘Why is the Iraqi government in a rush, in a hurry? This administration has only a few months in office.’ Mr Zebari said he told Obama that even a Democratic administration would be better off having something concrete in front of them to take a hard look at. Mr Zebari also indicated that even a future agreement would be short. ‘We are not talking about 50 years, 25 years or 10 years; we are negotiating about one or two years, so this is not going to be another colonisation of Iraq’.” Note that Zebari was talking of the short-term agreement, the one dealing with the rules governing the presence of US troops and the timetable for their withdrawal.

Here is how NBC reported Obama’s position on 16 June 2008 after the nominee had had a telephone conversation with Zebari: “Obama also told Zebari, he said, that Congress should be involved in any negotiations regarding a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq. He suggested it may be better to wait until the next administration to negotiate such an agreement.”

In other words, Obama wanted a delay on the Status of Forces Agreement, not on the Strategic Framework Agreement as he now claims in his rebuttal.

The NBC report continues: “Asked by NBC’s Lee Cowan if a timetable for the Status of Forces Agreement was discussed, Obama said, ‘Well he, the foreign minister, had presented a letter requesting an extension of the UN resolution until the end of this year. So that’s a six-month extension. Obviously, we can’t have US forces operating on the ground in Iraq without some sort of agreement, either a further extension of the UN resolution or some sort of Status of Forces Agreement, some Strategic Framework Agreement. As I said before, my concern is that the Bush administration – in a weakened state politically – ends up trying to rush an agreement that in some ways might be binding to the next administration, whether it was my administration or Senator McCain’s administration.

‘The foreign minister agreed that the next administration should not be bound by an agreement that’s currently made, but I think the only way to assure that is to make sure that there is strong bipartisan support, that Congress is involved, that the American people know the outlines of this agreement, and my concern is that if the Bush administration negotiates, as it currently has, and given that we’re entering into the heat of political season that we’re probably better off not trying to complete a hard and fast agreement before the next administration takes office’.”

Obama never denied my report. Nor did he approach the Iraqi officials to seek a denial. While the controversy was raging, Zebari and the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani were in New York, attending the UN General Assembly. Both were interviewed by half a dozen American media outlets. However, neither of them was asked whether Obama had tried to delay the negotiations. Both assumed that the US media was anxious not to risk a revival of a controversy that would do Obama little good. Had the question been posed, both would have been obliged to admit that Obama had tried to interfere with the negotiations.

Since the controversy started, I have contacted three senior Iraqi government officials who have confirmed that Obama did try to derail the negotiations. However, the officials refused to be quoted on the record for fear that they would soon have to deal with a President Obama. “We will agree to speak openly if Obama loses,” one senior official quipped in a telephone conversation.

What Obama hoped his more radical followers would not notice is that he is no longer speaking of “withdrawal”.

He also hoped to hide the fact that by telling the Iraqi leaders that a putative Obama administration might scrap agreements reached with the Bush team, he might have delayed the start of a process that should lead to a withdrawal of US forces within a mutually-agreed timeframe. The later you start the negotiating process, the later you get an agreement. And the later you have an agreement, the later you can withdraw your troops based on the agreed necessary security arrangements to ensure their safe departure.

Obama opposed the war to liberate Iraq, despite 18 mandatory resolutions passed by the UN Security Council over 13 years. After the liberation of Iraq, Obama did all he could, including voting against funding for US troops, to sabotage efforts to win the war. Obama claimed that the surge was failing, even when it had become clear to all that General David Petraeus’s plan had succeeded beyond all expectations. Obama enters the last phase of his election campaign without anything resembling a coherent policy on Iraq, the most important foreign policy issue facing the US at present. And this is dangerous both for Iraq and the US. No amount of name-calling and obfuscation can hide that fact.

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